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Monday, February 20, 2017

Sneak Peek of Upcoming Book - Murder On The Disoriented Express


~Coming March 6th, 2017~

I make it a rule to dislike elves as a matter of principle. They are treacherous, judgmental, stuck-up, and just plain annoying. So when Bertha opened my inner office door and interrupted my latest ritual of mint-flavored hot chocolate and the morning rag with mildly risqué pictures, I was somewhat aggrieved.

“What do you want?” I said, without raising my head. “This is my quiet time.”

“You may go right in,” she announced in her sweetest voice.

I looked up. An attractive elf was in the process of navigating a wheelchair through the doorway. The chair contained an elderly member of that same species who looked like she’d seen a century or three of hard duty. She smiled. Long, almost transparent hands rested on top of the multi-colored blanket wrapped around her. She balanced a lethal-looking cane on her knees.

Her assistant parked the chair directly across, facing me, and stood behind, all very prim and proper.

I rested my elbows on the top of the desk and formed my fingers into a professional-looking pyramid. “How may I be of assistance?” I said through clenched teeth.

“A gentleman should always stand the first time he meets a lady,” the ancient said.

I resisted my natural urge to muse out loud on the facts that I wasn’t a gentleman and lacked current information to comment on her status. Instead, I stood and extended my paw.

“Now that wasn’t difficult at all, was it, Randolf? I thought I should meet you before we set out.” Taking my hand, she examined my fingers. “Your nails are dirty.”

“And just how is this relevant?” I retrieved my fingers and sat down. “Before we set out? To where?”

“Nails speak to character.” Two bright yellow eyes examined me from beneath a mop of close-cropped and probably dyed, coal-black hair. A minor mountain range of wrinkles around those eyes spoke to a life at least partially spent outside.

“I’m afraid there has been some misunderstanding.” I started to rise and direct the pair toward the door. “I’m booked solid for the next month.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, sonny,” she said, smiling through well-reddened, thin lips. ”Your partner Miss Wildwater has confirmed all of the arrangements. I’m probably the reason you are booked up. Meeting you today is simply a pleasant formality.”

I swiveled my growing glare on my Executive Assistant sitting at her desk. She smiled at me through the window and waved. If good help wasn’t so hard to find I should have fired her years ago. I could chastise her severely, but she wouldn’t pay any attention.

“I’m afraid there has been a small gap in communications,” I said. “Do you mind bringing me up to speed? A brief outline will suffice.”

The yellow eyes twinkled. “My name is Miss Agatha Litchfield. I’m your new employer. This is my niece, Bella Annapolis. She is my ward and one of the Annapolis Royals. We are traveling to the Free Wet Coast where she will be meeting her fiancé. You are accompanying us.”

“As your bodyguard?” I frowned. Why would this pair need protection?

“No, of course not. We simply decided having a male accompany us would be useful, in case of heavy lifting.”

That made about as much sense as this pair needing a bodyguard. “Not that I’m saying I’m going on this expedition,” I said, “but I’m rather expensive for a laborer. You could hire two hobgoblins for an entire day at half my hourly price.”

The smile broadened. “I’ve been assured you are well worth it, Randolf.”

Now who is making referrals? “How are you traveling, by shuttle or dirigible?” Not that I was interested.

“We booked passage on The Trans Continental Deluxe Rapid Express.”

That aged rattletrap hadn’t crossed the entire continent in the last century. Now it was lucky to make the trip from Central City to the coast without incident. And by the sound of things, this pair could well afford to travel first class.

“The old steam train? Whatever for? That will take five to seven days depending on stops. An orbital shuttle would get you there in two hours, more or less. A dirigible might take almost as long as the train if there was a severe headwind, but with far fewer stops.”

Agatha Litchfield wagged a finger at me. “I don’t believe in flying, young’un. Besides, dear Bella has never crossed the prairies or the mountains. Best seen from the ground, not on one of those new fangles.”

Her niece laid a hand on the elderly shoulder. “Auntie was so gracious in arranging this trip. It’s the last chance for us to spend some quality time together.”

I glanced up at Bella for the first time. My initial impression of attractive was well on the mark. Tall and slim, with skin like pale polished porcelain, she had large round eyes that looked as though they could weep tons of tears on cue. Black hair was cropped to just above the shoulder, and thick enough to cover most of those pointed ears. Her outfit, calf-length with long sleeves, was almost too sensible for someone who looked barely old enough to have graduated from a finishing school.

Bertha was trying to attract my attention through the window. I glanced at her. My half-banshee assistant held up what appeared to be a substantial bag of coins, smiled wide-eyed and pointed at it, nodding eagerly. I assumed that meant the client over-paid. I supposed I could put up with a pair of harmless-looking elves for a week, and it didn’t hurt my private eyeball reputation to be known to be out of town on business once in a while. I guessed I could use some quiet time.

“All right,” I said, “but there are a few conditions I want to get straight. I am not a nursemaid. I don’t do stuff like bathing clients or changing dirty clothes. I expect proper sleeping accommodations and all meals. I do not want to spend two weeks inside those wheeled wooden coffins. You will pay for my return trip on the shuttle.”

“Agreed,” Agatha said.

I blinked. That was too easy. I should have thrown in a bar tab too. “When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow, at eight in the morning.” She held out her hand. “A pleasure doing business. We’ll meet you at the station at seven. We will have your ticket and all our necessary travel documents. Good day.”

Bella wheeled her out through the office, pausing to chat briefly with Bertha, and then they were gone.

Why did I feel as though the business had just been done to me? Seven? That was an uncharitable hour of the morning to set out. Guess I was in for an early night.

~To Be Continued~

Murder On The Disoriented Express

A reluctant Private Eyeball, Randy Aloysius, agrees to accompany an elderly elf and her attractive niece on a relaxing train trip across the continent to the wet coast. They seem harmless enough, so what could go wrong?
Well, there’s the obvious murder of a bent politician, plus a card-playing vampire, a brownie public relations hack, and a grieving widow murder suspect, not to mention other assorted suspicious characters, and someone out of Randy’s past.

Then there is the train itself, which may be in serious need of life support. After all, it does have to cross a prairie filled with woolly mammoths and surmount treacherous mountains passes where nasty things might lurk.

Available for Preorder on the Champagne Bookstore website. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Savvy Saturday: Masquerade by Brantwijn Serrah

I have a confession. I am in love with my boss.

If you knew him, you’d understand. Andrew’s a charmer. I’ve been his personal assistant for six years and every morning he’s in with a smile, blue eyes sparkling, greeting everyone by name. On Fridays he treats the whole office to coffee and pastries. I suppose it only makes sense: he’s a senator, after all. It’s practically his job to be charismatic and approachable. Even so, I can’t help it… I’ve fallen under his spell.

It doesn’t help that he’s terrifically handsome, to boot. He’s in his mid-forties—which, I admit, is young for a senator—but you’d never imagine it. The man is tan and athletic, really keeps himself in shape. His sandy brown-blonde hair is short and tousled, and even though I know he does it purposely to seem more accessible to his constituents, I find it adorable. He hasn’t even started getting crinkles around his eyes yet, but he laughs a lot. I think that’s the secret to his youth. He lives life with a winning grin on his face and a healthy dose of good humor.

I’m not the only woman to notice, of course, not by a long shot. There’s a line of eligible socialites waiting for a spot on his dance card. He’s like Bruce Wayne, for goodness sakes—only without the dark past and habit of dressing up in black, form-fitting rubber. As far as I know.

The thing is, those eligible socialites have several terrific qualities that I somehow missed out on. Mostly oodles of money, fancy town cars, custom-tailored designer clothes… you get my drift. Andrew pays me well, certainly, but I drive a Camry. It’s a nice Camry,but a Camry, nonetheless. I’m not the sort to dress up in Dolce and Gabbana or Dior on a daily basis. While I’ll dress in my classiest for big events or public appearances, mostly I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, and you can always tell those girls in a line-up against the debutantes who were born in custom Vera Wang diapers.

Those aren’t the only reasons Andrew hasn’t picked up on my feelings, though. I know I could probably get his attention even in a jeans and t-shirt and even waving at him from the driver’s side of my tidy little Toyota. The rich ladies intimidate me, sure. But the real problem is, I’m terminally shy.

Six years I’ve worked for him, and not once have I given him even an inkling that I find him attractive.

Today, I resolved to change that.

A week ago, Andrew received his invitation to the local women’s society annual charity gala: a masquerade ball. While opening his mail, I came across the invitation, and the flashy harlequin mask emblazoned on the front sparkled and winked at me, and—though I wouldn’t think of it until later—the first seed of my plan took root.

A masquerade party. Could there be anything more perfect?

I scanned the invitation, tapping the envelope against my lips as I read. A small, hand-scripted fold of stationary invited Andrew to participate in one of those bachelor auctions for the fund-raiser. I knew he would accept, and for a split-second my seed of hope almost died before it could bloom. The women who attended these events and participated in these auctions were the same women who could spin out and pick themselves up a brand new Tiffany diamond tiara at the drop of hat. A bachelor like Andrew would be auctioned off at a price that was far above my pay-grade. A tiny, giddy part of me wondered if I should ask for a raise as I set the invitation down on his desk, but of course that thought was immediately quashed. What better way to make my schoolgirl crush painfully obvious and momentously awkward at the same time?

I put the invitation down and gathered together the rest of the mail, sorting it and dividing it, tossing the adverts and junk magazines and organizing the official correspondence as usual. As I gathered the final collection up to deliver to Andrew’s desk, I slipped the masquerade invite right on top. I imagined striding into his office, dropping off the stack of letters and agendas, and whipping the invitation up with a grin. Need a date? I would ask. There was no way that was how it would play out.

I slipped into his office without knocking—I never needed to knock. Andrew was on his phone but he flashed me a grin as I entered, giving me the come right on in wave of his hand. I gave him a polite nod as I dropped off his mail, and then, I hesitated.

The mask stared back at me from the top of the pile of mail, glinting and glittering, laughing merrily. I smirked at it, then back and Andrew—I would ask him. This would be the day I did.

He had turned his back to me, engrossed in his conversation. A tiny, awkward heat rose to my cheeks. Without saying anything, I backed away from the desk and then snuck out of the room.

He probably already had a date, anyway.

***

Over the next few days, I mulled over the smiling mask on the charity invite, and the flirty, tenacious way its image kept nagging at me. Andrew dropped it back on my desk the day after I delivered it to him, catching me by surprise—I'd been lost in thoughts of it already—and he instructed me to send an RSVP right away, with a hearty appreciation for being invited and a very enthusiastic YES to the auction request. He had to ask me twice, since the sudden reappearance of the mask shook me so unexpectedly out of my thoughts that for a moment I didn’t hear him.

“Sorry, of course, Senator,” I murmured after the second request.

“Liz,” he chided. “I’ve told you before, it’s Andrew.”

“Sure, Andrew.”

“Atta girl.”

He gave me a wink. “And as long as you don’t call me Andy I’ll never call you Billy.”

“Nobody calls an Elizabeth ‘Billy’,” I sighed, which only made him laugh.

“Finish up your paperwork, we’ll be late for our luncheon at the university.”

I tucked the masquerade invite in my to-do tray, scribbled RSVP Charity Gala on my calendar, and straightened up the last of my files. Just before leaving, though, I gave one last glace at that mask.

That's when I got my idea.

***

A friend of mine involved in the local community theater suggested Dottiez Costumes and Party Favors when I mentioned my plan. I'd meant to drop by the nearest Party City for some cheap and easy supply and frankly, that’s what I expected at the store she recommended. To my surprise, Dottiez wasn't anything like a Party City.

The front windows were reminiscent of an antique’s shop: heavy, weathered wooden furniture dominated the displays, occupied by opulently dressed mannequins in distant, nonchalant poses. A curtain of fabric and hanging theater paraphernalia—black rubber Halloween bats, lacy strips of dusty white fabric, even various brands of old toy model airplanes—draped down over the rear of the displays, giving only a small glimpse of the dimly lit floor within. Huddled clothing racks featuring all manner of costumes stood beyond, waiting patiently.

When I stepped in the door, a hysterical cartoon shriek made me jump. Looking down, I saw I'd stepped on one of those Halloween door mats, with a green-faced witch in a black hat laughing up at me. When I looked up again to behold the older lady smiling at me from behind the counter, for just a second I was sure it was the same old witch.

Perhaps that wasn’t fair. The woman didn’t look like a warty old witch, and she certainly wasn't green. She was just… eccentric. The kind of eccentric you can see with the naked eye: an older woman with her short hair done in straight, wispy spikes, the color of deep, dark rubies highlighted with hot fuchsia. Though her face was lined with age her puppy-brown eyes sparkled with humor. She wore a black dress lined at the collar and cuffs with bird’s feathers, and a big fluffy boa in white and silver around her shoulders.

I realized then why my theater friend had recommended the place.

“Hello!” the lady greeted me. “Haven’t seen you in here before!”

“No, I’m new,” I said. “A friend suggested I come by to look for a costume.”

I took a moment to look around myself, flanked on either side by mismatched clothing racks, some of them sporting the current crop of brightly colored name-brand Halloween Costumes—their plastic hanging pouches in no particular organization—and some sporting period costumes in no packaging at all, also in no particular order. Many sections had them mixed together, a detailed 19th Century Confederate soldier’s uniform hanging right beside a bright red Little Ladybug affair in nylon and foam rubber, for your seven-year-old to wear to her school’s costume parade.

Along the winding walls through the misshapen shop, there were whole collections of strange prop paraphernalia: cheap party pranks like fake dog poo and a fly stuck in an ice cube, garlic gum and itching powder; fake plastic gladiator chests, celebrity bums and Playboy bunny busts; hats, hats, hats. The whole room smelled of their unique, nostalgically familiar scent, mingled with the drifting fingers of rosy, exotic incense in tins on the shelf. There were fake weapons along the back wall practically hidden under a wave of feathery boas like the one the shopkeeper wore, and an old antique mirror propped up in a corner behind makeshift changing closets. Around the counter itself—which was in the very center of the room—there were display cases filled with aged-looking pins and hatpins, earrings and bracelets, next to spasmodically flashing party favors for ravers and club-goers. Right beside the woman’s cash register was a stand of bright, electric hairsprays and costume makeup.

“Wow,” I said, agog. “You’re…well-stocked.”

She chuckled and leaned on the counter with a nod. “What’s the costume for?”

“A charity event,” I said. “Very high profile. Lots of well-to-do VIPs."

I threw a glance at a maid's costume with fake hands attached to seem as though they were groping the wearer’s naked breasts. “So not that.”

Again, she laughed, and came out from behind her cash register, guiding me over to a section of mismatched paraphernalia. I have no idea what possessed her to choose that section since there seemed to be no way of knowing what went where, but she quickly began pulling hangers off the rack and putting aside possible outfits.

“Little Bo Peep?” she asked, pulling out one of the period dresses with dusky blue satin over a fluffy, lacy crinoline. “I can give you a wig for bouncing golden curls to go with it.”

“No, thanks,” I muttered, self-consciously bringing a hand up to fiddle with the ends of my natural dishwater-blonde hair.

“Catwoman?” she asked, pulling out two costumes, one reminiscent of the old 60’s TV show and one that was little more than leather belting and slashed rubber pants.

“No,” I said right away.

“Fancy Southern Belle? Pirate Wench? Fresh-faced geisha girl?”

I shook my head at each costume she produced, slowly becoming less and less enthused at my plot. Finally, as she pulled out on last-ditch effort to win me over—a Savage Cavewoman two-piece—I shrugged my shoulders and sighed, giving up.

“I don’t see anything here that will work,” I said glumly. “But thank you.”

She gave me a sad smile. “Really, sweetie?”

“Really,” I said.

Her face fell, and she shrugged, turning away from me to shuffle the cavewoman back into the menagerie. While she did, I idly perused the stands closest to me, thinking perhaps it had been silly of me anyway. I’d find some reasonable suitable costume to meet the theme of the party—there was a decent Wicked Witch of the West costume in the Party City insert in yesterday’s mail—and do my job keeping Andrew’s social calendar straight and managing his contacts as he networked, hobnobbed and canoodled.

As my mind wandered lazily along those lines, my hand slipped across a smooth layer of satin. It was cool and slithery under my fingertips, iridescent and rich, noble red. Curious, I pulled the article of clothing from its rack and looked it over.

It was some sort of whimsical clown design, I thought at first. The satin red I had run my hands over was part of a mantle, short, petal-like sections covering the shoulders and neckline, with two longer, flowing tails falling halfway down the back. At the ends of these tails were two round golden bells tied on with long, thin, satiny black ribbon. The top of the outfit was a pattern of the same noble red flanked by long lengths of ebony black; two rows of small gold stars paraded down the front in smart lines following the seams of the changing colors.

It wasn’t a clown’s outfit, I realized. It was a harlequin’s outfit. Although much sexier than any harlequin I’d ever seen—instead of a single one-piece design repeating chessboard squares of bright colors all the way down to the ankles, the bodice of the costume fit like a long-sleeved leotard, leaving the legs covered instead by the sheer, billowing material of Turkish harem pants. Red gloves and ankle boots came hanging in a little plastic sleeve attached to the hanger; so did an elaborate red hood that framed the face in a heart shape, with two drooping extensions like small ram’s horns coiling back over the ears. Another round bell was attached at the end of each of these.

As I held it in my hands, I knew this costume was perfect. Half jester, half dancer, it was flirty and full of mysterious possibility. It would absolutely wow the whole gala.

There was just one thing missing.

I looked up, glancing again at the mismatched paraphernalia along the walls, the pranks and the hats and the boas. I knew this lady would have the exact thing I was looking for now.

Then, yes, I saw them, dangling above the feathers and fluff of the boas, glittering and winking in the strangely antique light.

Masks. Brightly colored, sequined and beribboned, devilishly smiling masks.

***

On the night of the charity gala, I called Andrew and told him there had been a delay, and I would have to meet him at the party later. As I hung up, I caught a glance of myself in the mirror.

On any regular day, I’m a skinny, mousy wallflower. Sure, I can juggle an appointment book, a Blackberry, a stack of files and folders and a cell phone while typing over a hundred words per minute, and no, I don’t wear glasses or hide my face behind my hair or shrink down into frumpy oversized college sweatshirts. I’d never been elegant in any sort of way, though. I was a beanpole with long legs and a pert, professional demeanor, hair in a bun, wearing a smart business suit with a pencil skirt.

In the harlequin costume, I saw a side of myself I’d never seen before. Beneath the dark, gauzy harem pants my long legs were graceful, poised—like a ballerina’s. The alternating panels of satin black and red created a shapely silhouette, accentuating the smooth and subtle curves of my figure, usually lost under my suit jackets and button-up shirts. The tails of the mantle dangled playfully behind my shoulder, bells jingling coyly as I turned side to side, inspecting myself in the reflection.

Suddenly, a new image flashed through my mind. Half-dressed, without the jester’s hood and mask, my short, straight hair hanging unassumingly to my shoulders and no makeup on—I wondered if Andrew would enjoy the sight, if he were standing behind me, watching me in the mirror. Watching me take the costume off, instead of putting it on.

I giggled despite myself and reached for the hood. I pulled it on, tucking my hair underneath, and attached it to the mantle with little button-hooks. I took another moment to assess myself. I normally wore simple nudes and pinks when it came to lip gloss, and rarely any actual lipstick, but for the costume party I’d found myself a dark, wine-colored shade to go with the very courtly colors of my outfit. I applied it in a more accentuated style than normal, outlining a coy little pout. I did my eyes in dark, smoky colors, before finally adding the last touch.

I'd picked out a black mask, embellished with scrolling gold designs and a sequined silver trim. I’d rejected the ones ornamented with feathers and plumes for a simple decoration of gold-and-silver ribbon arranged into a flirty along one sweeping curve. With the mask on, I became utterly transformed: there was nothing left of the mousy wallflower. The creature staring back at me was sexy, enigmatic… even a little bit dangerous.

Andrew would never see me coming.

I took a cab across town. It was worth the double-take I got from the cabbie as I slipped into the backseat, giving him a smile but offering no explanation. Behind the mask it didn’t matter what the driver thought of me or the sexy show I put on. I was free from the blush that might have risen to my face if I had stepped out in a Wicked Witch’s cloak. Who knew what he thought? He might see me as pretty or pretty crazy… and both gave me an unexpectedly pleasant little flutter of butterflies in the stomach.

The thought made me laugh quietly behind my hand. The bells of my jester’s cap tinkled merrily with me.

“Airport Hilton Hotel,” I instructed. He started the cab, staring dutifully forward and occasionally sneaking puzzled glances at me when he could.

“You going to some sorta costume ball?” he finally said. I grinned at him, trying again to hide the giggle that rose in my chest.

Perhaps I was trying to protect the costume’s beautiful satin with instinctive caution, but I even seemed to be moving with a new level of jaunty grace. As we pulled up in front of the Hilton—fashionably late, as had been my plan—I handed over my fare and stepped out of the cab, moving with a prescient self-awareness that extended through my limbs and even into the tails of my mantle, the peaks of my jester’s cap, the pointed toes of my slippers. A bright and wistful amusement filled me as I caught at the sight of the harlequin slipping across the reflective tinted windows of limousines and shuttles pulling up in front of the doors.

I knew Andrew would be easy to find. I’d helped him pick his costume: a prohibition-era mobster. I almost advised against it—thought it might be a bit tongue-in-cheek for a politician—but ultimately I’d been unable to say no to the idea of him in a smart pin-striped suit and a fedora cocked over his brow. I’d picked his mask, selecting a simple broad checkerboard design with bold arcs and just a bit of black-and-silver trim around the edges and the left eye. He’d be easy to identify, even in the crowd.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the ballroom was the untold number of fluffy Victorian skirts and swishing crinolines, more than a dozen Bo-Peeps and even more Cinderellas and Red Riding Hoods. Sprinkled among them were the skintight Catwomen and the generic pirate wenches, cavewomen and all manner of Wicked Witches. But I didn’t see even one checkered leotard or Venetian jester in the bunch.

I spotted Andrew right away. He stood among a group of flashy businessmen and socialites—at least, I assumed, since they were all dressed up like so many poodle-skirted teeny-boppers, Elvis impersonators and vintage Vegas headliners. Glass of champagne in one hand, Andrew was regaling them with some animated tale, perhaps the latest news from the capitol or humorous recounts of the most recent baseball season. His team had gone down early and hard, and it had been the subject of many a loud and uproarious office rant. I snagged my own flute of champagne and drifted through the party-goers to see him.

Any other day, in any other get-up, this would have been where shy wallflower Liz took over, skirting away from the group, dutifully taking down notes or phone numbers or email addresses as the Senator shook hands and made friends. If I were wearing the costume he thought I’d be wearing—a slightly more feminine version of his, a loyal mob hand—I’d have been part of his staff, just like I was everywhere else. Tonight I wasn’t Liz the Assistant, Liz the Staffer. Tonight I was someone entirely different.

With that thought in mind, I sauntered up to the group and gave my unsuspecting boss a self-assured smirk.

“Absolutely fascinating, Senator,” I purred, having no idea what conversation I had just interrupted. “But what I really want to know is… how well do you dance?”

I made an impression, that was clear. Andrew and his audience fell silent. They were a sea of approving grins as they took in my sparkle and satin. If the charming senator ever suspected the pretty creature in front of him was the same practical, efficient, no-nonsense woman who held down the desk outside his door, he gave no indication. Instead, he gave his usual campaign-winning grin—God, it was even sexier behind the tuxedo pattern of his mask—and tipped his glass to me.

“Well, I’ve been told my dancing skills are up to par,” he chuckled. “Of course, I’ve never had the opportunity to measure them against a Cirque du Soliel star before.”

“Maybe someday you’ll have that opportunity,” I returned. “Until then, though, will you take the chance with me?”

“Absolutely,” he said, clinking his champagne flute against mine and finishing the last of his drink with a courageous swig. Taking both our glasses and dropping them on a passing tray of empties, he took my hand and led me onto the floor.

As as he slipped an arm around my waist those familiar giddy butterflies fluttered up in my chest. His embrace was firm but gentle, and joyfully, comfortably warm. I could barely settle into his arms, I was so electric with bubbly glee.

“You dance very well,” Andrew complimented. “Miss….?”

“Oh, no, Senator,” I chided. “It’s a masquerade party. No names until the masks come off at midnight!”

I knew he was only being charming. I certainly wasn’t tripping over my feet but I was just following his lead, my cheery bells jingling as he waltzed me around the floor. That was fine by me. This close, I could have nuzzled the hint of five o’clock shadow along his handsome jaw, or run my hand through his sandy hair. I didn’t, but being near enough to do so gave me a serene contentment. The scent of his cologne—L’Eau D’Issey, musky and rich with the sweet scent of wood and amber—was heaven.

I didn’t think I’d ever been so close to Andrew before. Or perhaps I had, leaning over his desk to get his signature or go over a proposal or help him figure out new computer hardware. I’d never been this intimately close to him, though… it was an incredible feeling.

“I hear you’re up for auction later,” I teased.

“You’ve heard right,” he replied. “Can I expect you to be among the bidders?”

“Maybe. Of course, if I did bid on you and I did win,” I mused. “I’d have you for… what? A pleasant photo-op of a lunch, a chance to bend your ear about the charities I support or the event I’d like your help to arrange. That’s all well and good, but if I was looking for a date with you I’d like something a little more… genuine.”

It earned me another gorgeous smile. “How candid of you. Should my feelings be hurt? You make it sound as though you’re decidedly not interested in a date.”

I dropped him a wink. “I got a dance. I can be happy with that.”

He spun me, sending the jester’s bells a-ringing. As I twirled back into his arms, I could swear he was holding me a little bit closer.

“You’re a very mercurial woman, aren’t you?” he asked.

“I’m just enjoying my moment,” I said.

“Well,” he replied as the song came to an end. He lifted my hand, giving it a kiss. “To many more moments, hm?”

“One can hope.”

As he led me from the floor, he reached out and one of the waiters whisked by to offer us another glass of champagne. Andrew took both proffered flutes and handed one to me.

“Join me for a walk on the grounds? Maybe I can convince you to invest a little money in the auction.”

“Be my guest,” I replied, and he took my arm to lead me out.

We enjoyed a stroll through the hotel’s extraordinary landscaped gardens, but surprisingly enough he said very little. Once we were out of sight of the party-goers on the balcony, he let his hand drift to my lower back, pressing his fingers ever-so-lightly there while we meandered along the lawns and the pseudo-Greek garden architecture. I tilted my head to admire the lights on the surfaces of the hotel’s elegant fountains as they sang pretty sprays of water into the sky.

“Your costume is stunning,” he said as we reached a quiet colonnade open on one side to a calm reflecting pool. I smiled in thanks, and quietly slipped away from him to stand by one of the columns and admire the water. Again I marveled at the playful creature looking back up at me. Where had she been all my life?

Andrew cozied up beside me. “So, about that auction—”

“You’ll fetch a very handsome price, I’m sure,” I said. “Probably from the head of the Women’s Society, though I’d be careful with her. I’m sure she’d love to get her hooks into a handsome senator, and for more than just a little PR date.”

“Well, then, wouldn’t it be better if somebody else won?” he muttered, leaning close and resting his head near to my shoulder. I was thrilled by his nearness, my heart picking up its rhythm as the invigorating scent of L’Eau D’Issey soothed and stirred me.

“It’s all for charity, now, remember,” I teased.

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to bid?” he asked. His voice was lower now, right by my ear. I turned towards him and our bodies pressed more closely together.

“There’s not much chance I could afford a luxury like you,” I whispered.

“Better chance than if you don’t try at all,” he murmured back. “And if you were to make the final bid, I think I might be the one who wins.”

Before I could return another measure of the playful banter, his lips were on mine, warm and pleasing. His right hand dropped gently to my hip, while his left snuck around my shoulders to press me against him. The little bells on my cap shivered and jingled; I shut my eyes with a quiet sound of happiness.

We kissed for several long seconds, his arms tightening around me.

“Do you always make friends this fast, Senator?” I murmured as our lips parted. The champagne had made me dizzy...or maybe it wasn't the champagne at all.

“Usually not,” he replied, still holding me close. “This is… a unique circumstance.”

He leaned in for another kiss, stroking my satin-clad hip. I reached my arms around his neck and let myself drift away on the ardent satisfaction, the sweet, tingling affection stirring up in my belly and under my skin where his hands rested on me. Then Andrew swayed me a little closer, sliding his hand under my thigh—the sensation of his fingertips through the gauzy harem pants sent a quick shiver up my spine. I laughed quietly, breaking the kiss, and he eased me up against the column, guiding my thigh around his hip before returning his hand to my side.

“Senator,” I whispered. “I didn’t realize you were so passionate about your causes.”

“I can be passionate about many things,” he said, tracing his kisses in a line down to my throat, kissing me through the satin of my bright red mantle. “Especially a pretty girl with a secret.”

His lips brought a flush of heat to my skin, filling me with excitement. My head spun, full of sparkling champagne bubbles and glittery gold sequins as I pressed my full body against his.

“Senator!” I murmured, nuzzling my face into his hair, inhaling the clean scent of his shampoo.

“Please,” he whispered. “Call me Andrew.”

“No names until the masks come off!” I giggled.

“That's hardly fair,” he breathed. “You knew who I was before you asked me to dance. Just what am I supposed to call you while I’m stripping this lovely costume off of you and laying you down on that park bench over there?”

I slapped him lightly on the chest. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Wouldn't I?”

He had me backed against the colonnade and practically suspended between it and him. His hands ran down my sides and back up the front of my costume—the warmth of his palms slipped over the curves of my breasts, and another thrilling tickle ran through me.

My hands tangled in his hair as I kissed his brow, the crown of his head, his ear. My mind was a whirl of racing emotions. Was this really me? Really Andrew? How had we come to be here, so quickly entangled in each other’s arms? Every movement accentuated by the slither of material, tracing arcs of pleasure along my skin. The jester’s cap jingled as I rolled my head back in pleasure.

Andrew tilted his head up again and we were kissing again, trading fervent pecks and deep, zealous lip-locks, no longer able to find words.

It all became too beautifully intense. His kisses, so sweet and so fulfilling. Soon, though, I knew we were out of time. With a final, soft sound of pleasure, I forced myself to break away.

“You’ll have to be getting back for that auction,” I whispered. “It starts in ten minutes.”

“What a spoilsport you are,” he whispered with a smile. “I can skip it. They’ve got plenty of eligible bastards in there to go up on the sales block and flaunt. They’ll never miss me.”

“You promised them," I insisted.

“You’ll be in there to bid on me, little harlequin?” he asked. “Because otherwise I won’t go. I’ve got far more interesting business right here.”

“You are determined!”

“Indeed I am.”

He kissed me deeply again. Both hands cradled my face, pulling me close as his tongue slipped into a flirting tangle with my own. I moaned under him, and one of his hands dropped down to caress my thigh again.

“I'm determined to see you without your cute little mask on,” he whispered. “And without that cute little outfit on.”

I laughed out loud. Oh, how I would have loved to let Andrew take me home, oh I would have loved to feel him strip away the tight satin and slide his hands along the flesh of my naked thighs. Even the thought of him taking me to his big, beautiful bed—a bed I had dreamed of for years—made me giddy.

I should have. Maybe I would have. The naughty harlequin in me thought stealing away from the costume ball was the only way this night could end.

But the careful professional in me, who had been quiet all of the night, letting me enjoy my little game, ticked off the minutes in my mind. Andrew had to get back for the bachelor auction, and soon enough, it would be time to remove the masks and reveal the faces underneath. Then I would be shy little Liz again. Shy little Liz in a too-sexy jester’s outfit, in a wilting illusion of glitter and gold.

I'd had my fun. I’d danced my dance, enjoyed my moment. I’d tasted his kiss and even felt his perfect hands stroking my skin. The night had to come to an end, though. The harlequin had to beat her hasty retreat, before the truth behind her pretty tricks was revealed.

“Go,” I told him between kisses, even as he continued his passionate attention. “I’ll see you on the auction block.”

“Am I to take that as a promise you’ll be bidding for me?”

“Take it however you like,” I said. “But go check in before they put some local college lacrosse star in your place.”

He didn’t give up right away. His hands kept searching my body, looking for the zipper, while his lips kept up their wonderful attentions on my lips and down my throat. Finally, though, I put up my hands between us, and nudged him away.

“Go,” I insisted. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“Why not come with?” he invited.

“And have us both show up, breathless and flushed, with my makeup smeared and my costume awry?” I gave him a playful shove. “Go, Andrew.”

He grinned wryly, eyes sparkling behind his mask. Leaning in for one last kiss, he turned to go back to the ballroom.

“Come,” he told me. “Win me.”

I smiled and tipped him a nod.

As soon as he'd disappeared down the colonnade, I sat on one of the benches beside the reflecting pool, and smiled at my reflection. Lipstick smeared, a lock of hair escaping the jester’s cap here and there, a bright flush reddening my cheeks—still, in the eyes of the mirror me I could see the bright pleasure of a woman deliriously happy.

Though it had been only a few short, stolen moments… it had been everything I wanted it to be.

I didn’t return to watch the auction. I slipped away, hailing another cab and riding home in silence. Removing my mask and jester’s cap, I sunk into the backseat thinking of Andrew’s affectionate hands, his warm, perfect lips.

When I got home I stripped off my costume and hung it up neatly. I took one last moment to admire the satin and ribbons and bells. Then I stared at myself in the mirror for long, long moments.

I was Liz again. Tidy, organized, mousy little Liz, with a little smeared makeup and a big stupid grin on her face.

I smirked. Then I climbed into a shower and got ready for bed.

It was nothing but pleasant dreams.

***

I was awoken by a smart rapping at my door. It was still early—earlier than I wanted to be up on a weekend—and for long moments I stayed in bed, wondering who would be knocking and when they would give up and leave. After several minutes, though, they still hadn’t, so I got up, pulling on my pajamas, and heading for the door.

I was stunned when it was Andrew standing in the hallway of my apartment building. He leaned in the doorway, his eyes narrowed and a smirk on his face.

“So you never did show up last night, Liz,” he prodded.

I didn’t answer. I was still too puzzled to even understand. Stammering, I invited him in and retreated to the kitchen to pour coffee for us.

“Why didn’t you come?” he asked, taking a seat at the counter.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “My car wouldn’t start and I was here for hours waiting for the guy from roadside assistance. It was a nightmare, Andrew.”

“Mm-hmm,” he said. “I’ll bet it was.”

“Are you angry?” I asked, pausing in my search for mugs.

“No,” he shrugged. “Although I hope it won’t become a habit, you missing important events like this.”

“It won’t,” I promised, hoping he couldn’t see my blush as I pretended to still be searching, even though there were two perfectly good mugs right in front of my hand.

Finally I plunked down the cups and started pouring the coffee. I popped two sugars into his and a dollop of cream in both, turning around to join him at the counter.

“Good,” he said. “Because we’ve got another important event tonight.”

“Tonight?” I said. “There’s nothing on the calendar for tonight.”

“Just added it,” he replied. “Very important meeting. At the Courtyard Steak House, downtown.”

“That’s a very fancy place,” I said, reaching for the small notepad I kept by my phone. “What time?”

“Seven,” he said. I guessed one of the more prominent ladies must have won the auction last night. “And be sure to wear something nice, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, dashing off the information.

“Like an evening gown.”

I paused.

“This is a business meeting?” I asked, puzzled.

“Business of a sort,” he said. I stared at him for several long moments. A creeping suspicion bloomed in my chest.

“I see,” I said quietly, laying down the pen.

“I’m glad."

In one more gulp he had finished his coffee and was up, helping himself to the sink to rinse the cup and plop it on the drying rack. Then he turned and headed for the door, as if the only reason he had come all the way here was to inform me of this appointment. I hopped up to show him out, acting almost entirely on instinct, still confused.

“Liz,” he said, spinning to face me again. “Promise you’ll make it this time?”

“Yes, Andrew,” I said.

“Promise?” he insisted, dropping me a wink.

“Yes, I promise. I will be there.”

Then, he leaned forward, kissing me on the lips before I even realized it.

“Be there with bells on

About the Author
When she isn't visiting the worlds of immortals, demons, dragons and goblins, Brantwijn fills her time with artistic endeavors: sketching, painting, customizing My Little Ponies and sewing plushies for friends. She can't handle coffee unless there's enough cream and sugar to make it a milkshake, but try and sweeten her tea and she will never forgive you. She moonlights as a futon for four lazy cats, loves tabletop role-play games, and can spend hours watching Futurama, Claymore or Buffy the Vampire Slayer while she writes or draws.

In addition to her novels, Brantwijn has had several stories published in anthologies by Breathless Press, including the 2013 Crimson Anthology and 2014 Ravaged Anthology. She's also had a short story published in the Cleiss Press Big Book of Orgasm and the anthology Coming Together Through The Storm. She hopes to have several more tales to tell as time goes on. She has author pages on GoodReads and Amazon, and loves to see reader comments on her work. Her short stories occasionally pop up at Foreplay and Fangs, her blog at http://brantwijn.blogspot.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SALE! 30% off All Romance Novels

Grab all of our romances at this sale! 30% off every romance we have at the Champagne Bookstore. Check out these featured titles for some happy reading.


Unscripted
J.S. Marlo
Duty Bound Series #1

After a bullet shatters his world, actor Blythe Huxley befriends Riley Kendrick, a new writer on the television show Wild Rescue, never expecting to discover a kindred spirit.

No stranger to tragedy, Riley lends a compassionate ear to Blythe's difficulties and soon becomes entangled in a web of illicit affairs and deadly intrigue.

When an arsonist and a killer both strike, Riley's fate intertwines with Blythe's, and her life and her heart hang in the balance. Will they be able to protect their past? And save their future?






Seducing the Darkness
Shiela Stewart
Darkness Series #1

Trinity was once a fragile girl. Being taken by a powerful vampire prince changed her. Discovering him in the arms of another woman changed destiny. Alone, she’s learned fast how to be tough, how to survive, and how to protect the people in her city from the evil that lurks in the dark. She was managing just fine, until Basil walked back into her life.

Basil Hawthorn has been the reigning prince of vampires since banishing his father to the Realm of Dark Mystics decades earlier. When a prophetic dream makes him realize Trinity’s life is at risk, he decides the only way to save her is to push her away. Doing so is not easy. Trinity is the only woman he has ever loved, ever will love, and he can’t seem to let her go.

When rumors arise of a plan to raise the King and blot out the sun, both Trinity and Basil know they must do everything to stop it. Even if it means working together. Despite the betrayal and the threat, they find themselves drawn to each other. Love has no boundaries, especially in the face of danger. But will they be able to stop the ritual before it’s too late?

Or will the darkness capture them both?

Haven
Celia Breslin
Tranquilli Bloodlines Series #1

San Francisco nightclub owner Carina Tranquilli works hard, plays hard, and never allows the death of her parents and her twelve-year memory gap to get her down. But her life takes a left turn when a witch attacks her on her twenty-fifth birthday.

Three hauntingly familiar vampires emerge to reveal she possesses a latent power. To protect her from their enemies, they admit to wiping her memories clean and abandoning her as a child, but now they need her help. As she struggles to evade her new protectors and even newer enemies, she meets Alexander, an enigmatic, undead musician. Insta-lust flares, leaving her wanting more.

With evil’s minions hounding her every move, and everything she thought she knew turned on its head, Carina must harness her burgeoning power, unravel her vampire family’s web of deceit, and fight to have a love life...without getting killed in the process.

Lotus Petals
Brantwijn Serrah
Blood and Fire Series #1

Rhiannon Donovan, daughter to the vampire Queen, would rather die than be made a bride to a demon Lord. Aijyn, courtesan to the undead Daimyo of Kansai, can think of nothing more horrifying than his promise of eternal life. In the halls of the Blood Lotus Temple, the two women struggle against the chains of their fate, and find a solace in each other that could mean freedom for them both... or might cost each of them the ultimate price--their lives.







Ann Lory

Hannah Dawson never expected to be attacked by Yankee deserter’s where she lives in the Tennessee Smokey Mountains…but she never imagined she’d be forced to marry the Yankee officer that saves her either.

When Lieutenant Lane Peterson, of the Union Army rescues a Tennessee belle and is injured in the process he is surprised when Hannah takes him in and nurses him back to health. Unable to keep his hands from exploring her tempting body, Lane finds himself in a compromising position and before he knows it he is standing as a reluctant groom for a shot-gun wedding. As soon as his wounds heal, Lane plans to head north, find the first Union Army camp he comes to and get his marriage to the Southerner annulled. But mother-nature and fate have plans of their own. Snowed in for the winter, Lane and Hannah find a passion that will not be denied North and South of the Mason Dixon Line.

Professional Grievers
Mickey J. Corrigan

When Seymour Allen's girlfriend dies, his depression is as dark as a South Florida thunderstorm. After he gets hired by a weird man to do an even weirder job, Seymour's life lightens up. He finds that he enjoys being a professional griever, spending time at the wakes and funerals of some very unpopular people.

That's where he meets Yvonne Dougherty, a sexy redhead dealing with the loss of her mobster boyfriend. Nothing like sex and danger, guns and gators, to make a man remember how good it feels to be alive.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sneak Peek at Upcoming Book - Penetrating the Darkness

~Coming March 6th, 2017~

Dusty had to admit having a full belly for a change felt incredible. Since his capture, he’d been fed a variety of disgusting things which one wouldn’t consider food, or starved for days. Being able to eat as much as he wanted without having it taken away made his imprisonment a tad bit easier. Still, he stayed guarded. He fully expected at any time they might haul him back to his cell. Given his present company, his cell right now had its benefits.

He wasn’t used to crowds, preferred working and being on his own, most of the time. But even if he did enjoy the company of others, he wouldn’t like this particular group. Not only were they filthy beasts who preferred their meat raw, their blood warm, and their music loud, but they were vulgar and rowdy. And if the guy next to him elbowed him one more time, Dusty was going to stab his fork into the guy’s twitching left eye.

“Ain’t that right, Destroyer?”

When the elbow came toward him, again, Dusty shifted out of the man’s reach, wrapping his fingers around his fork. One more time, you creep.

“Our new recruit needs to be initiated,” Chaos spoke as he stood. “And tested. Take him out on a hunt. Use one of the fleshies as bait.” He rested his hand on Dusty’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “And remember what you wear on your ankle, my boy.”

How could he forget? The damn tracker was cutting into his skin.

“Behave, and you will be allowed to come and go as you please.”

Oh, goodie. Wasn’t he the luckiest hostage ever?

He was elbowed again, only this time Dusty didn’t hide his annoyance. “You do that again, Slasher, and I’ll rip your arm off and slap you with it.”

The whole room roared with laughter. The big, beasty guy ruffled Dusty’s hair. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

“You kill me, kid,” Slasher laughed, ruffling Dusty’s hair a little more.

Yeah, he’d sure like to kill the asshole. Where the murderous urge came from he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t a killer. He’d never so much as thought about murder or harming anything living. Deep breaths, Dusty. Calm the fuck down.
“Come on, let’s take you out and see what you can do.” The brute lifted him, literally, off his seat and set him on his feet.

Dusty’s jaw ached with the tension of clenching it. Touch me again, and I’ll make you sing soprano.

“And, boys,” Chaos lifted a finger, “do take him downtown. We don’t need certain people sniffing around here should you become noticed.”

“Yes, sir,” Slasher acknowledged, dragging Dusty along as he left the room. “You and me, kid, are gonna be best pals.”

Not if he could help it. But Dusty kept up the pretense, smiling despite the desire to strangle him.

~To be Continued~

Penetrating the Darkness

Amara loves her job caring for Felicity, the child stolen from her parents by the vampire queen. Gifted with more power than a child should possess, Felicity escapes to look for her mother and father, and takes Amara with her. Thrust into a strange, dark world, Amara’s loyalty and caregiving skills will be put to the test.

Dusty hoped to finish college and become a biologist. Until a sadistic vampire kidnapped, tortured, and turned him. When he’s taken out to find his own victim, Dusty’s chance to free himself arrives in the form of a bright white flash, a beautiful young blonde, and a small child with the ability to incinerate anything and anyone with merely a thought. As the three work together to find Felicity’s parents, Dusty and Amara discover a deep affection for each other.

Can their budding relationship survive the power struggle between warring vampire factions?

Available for preorder on the Champagne Bookstore website.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Savvy Saturday: Skirmish by Keith Willis

“All’s Fair In Love and War” -- John Lyly's, "Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit"

Clarise Rochford plucked at the strings of her lyre. It produced a series of discordant, almost haunting minor-key notes. Mournful and jarring, they echoed her feelings perfectly. She glared resentfully at the instrument as if it had been mocking her. Carefully and precisely, she placed it on the table. It was either that, or throw the blasted thing against the wall.

Clarise smiled at her audience, a brittle, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry,” she said, swallowing to relieve the catch in her throat. “I fear my mind must be elsewhere this evening. Will you excuse me?”

There were enthusiastic murmurs and nods of encouragement. Though the ladies of the queen’s retinue normally enjoyed hearing her play, tonight’s entertainment had been nothing short of torture by stringed instrument. Clarise busied herself with packing the lyre back into its case, trying to conceal a face hot with shame and frustration. Closing the case with a loud snap, she made her escape.

“Clarise, wait.”

It was the queen. Clarise stopped mid-stride, the weight of the instrument dragging her arm down like the weight of her embarrassment. She turned to face her pursuer, sketching a quick curtsy. “Your Majesty.”

“What on earth is wrong?” asked Gwyndolyn Gwynfallis, Queen of Kilbourne. “I’ve never heard you play…” she swallowed hard and continued hoarsely, “Like that.”

Clarise bowed her head. “My apologies, Your Majesty,” she muttered. “I suppose I was just a bit, um, distracted.”

The queen eyed her speculatively. “Distracted, eh? I see. Is there anything I can do?”

Clarise shook her head in fierce negation, sending her hair flying. “Thank you, Your Majesty, but no. It’s a--a personal matter.”

“I see,” said the queen again. She obviously didn’t. “Well, as you wish.” She smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine next time.”

It was all Clarise could do not to burst into tears. Would there even be a next time? She smiled weakly, nodded, and dipped another hasty curtsy. Gwyndolyn turned back to the music room, from which emerged the faints sounds of voices and laughter.

Laughter directed at her, Clarise was certain. She hefted her instrument, clutching it in front of herself like a shield, and fled the field.

“Blast,” she muttered, closing and bolting the door. Setting the lyre down, she threw herself into a chair, buried her head in her hands, and gave a moan like a soul in torment. Her long blond hair, compared to spun gold by some long-forgotten swain with a misbegotten poetic streak, cascaded about her face. She pulled it back fiercely, tying it into a severe knot. Then she went in search of the bottle of wine she knew was lurking about.

She found the bottle lying drunkenly on its side next to the settee. It was empty except for a couple of wayward drops which hit her tongue with the sour tang of a memory of lost love.

She had, Clarise recalled with no little rancor, finished it the night before. Actually, she was a bit startled she could remember anything. The bottle had been almost full when she’d started on it.

“Curse the man!” she exclaimed aloud. Speaking of lost loves. Although could one lose a love one had never really had? Clarise wasn’t sure, but she was sure of one thing. Somehow, this was all Byron Darby’s fault.

“Mrow!” came a reproachful answer.

Clarise whirled to find a sleek black cat with enormous green eyes staring at her. Francesca by name, the cat normally ruled over Marissa duBerry’s townhouse. Clarise had agreed to keep her and provide meals whilst Marissa was off visiting her parents in Bremaine. With a guilty start, she realized she hadn’t put out any food today. Had she yesterday? It seemed doubtful. And she’d told Mrs. Higgins not to trouble herself, that she would take care of the cat.

“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, looking about in desperation as if expecting a fish to magically appear. Francesca sat back on her haunches, regarding Clarise with slitted eyes and a supremely dubious expression. When it was apparent there was no fish in the offing she disappeared under the settee. She soon reappeared, bearing a limp mouse which had obviously been stored up in anticipation of just such a feline tragedy.

“Ewww!” said Clarise. Francesca ignored this commentary on her choice of snacks. Clarise retreated into her bedchamber and closed the door, leaving the field to the cat.

The things one did for friends. She staggered to the window and leaned out, breathing deeply. Night birds trilled their tunes and crickets chirruped counterpoint. A light breeze wafted the sweet scent of lilacs from the garden below. Then a rustling within those lilacs drew her attention, and she saw the lurking form.

As lurking forms went, this one was of the large or over-sized variety. A cloud had momentarily covered the moon, so there wasn't enough light available to make out any of its features clearly. But from the general size and shape, Clarise was certain she had a pretty good idea of its identity. She drew back with a sharp hiss, then cautiously peered out from behind the diaphanous shelter of a light curtain.

Yes, there it was, still lurking away like anything. The moon provided a brief moment of illumination before darting back behind its cloud again. But the glimmer had been enough to see the upturned face and the shock of red hair.

So! What was Captain Byron Darby doing in the bushes beneath her window? He certainly wasn’t on maneuvers with the Legion. After he’d escorted her to the king’s banquet two weeks prior, he appeared to have disappeared. Clarise had neither seen nor heard from him since.

Which was decidedly vexing. She had thought, based on things he had said--murmured into her ear, actually--and things he had done, like try and kiss her, that Sir Byron wasn’t the type to dash off and hide. She had pictured him as the type who would try, if a bit awkwardly, to sling her across his shoulder and whisk her away to a secluded bower somewhere.

She had actually pictured this scene in vivid detail over the course of several sleepless nights: her struggling (although not too much) as he carried her off in his manly arms; his declarations of undying devotion as they rode off into the sunset; her hair (perfectly coiffed, of course) shimmering in the moonlight as he ran his fingers through it; his lips, pressed to her own, as his fingers moved from her hair to the shoulder of her gown, inching ever lower…

“Blast!” Clarise rubbed her head where she’d bumped it on the window. Pleasant daydreams forgotten, she peeked out again. Yes, he was still there. Should she call down to him? Or would she just put him to flight?

But as she weighed this decision, it was made for her. The lurking form moved away, swiftly and silently. Well, almost silently; it tripped over a low hedgerow, went sprawling headlong to the ground, and cursed soundly.

Clarise looked after Byron with a mixture of exasperation and amused affection. She watched until his large form vanished into the darkness, then turned away from the window in a bout of deep contemplation.

What did this all mean? She needed to think. And for Clarise, thinking required music. She glanced at the lute which had been so recently unaccommodating, decided against it, and left her room. She strode down the corridor to her music room, where a piano-forte resided. She needed to allow her mind to wander free. If her hands and the small part of her conscious needed to play were thus occupied, it would leave the rest free for contemplation.

Sitting down at the piano-forte, Clarise allowed her fingers to run the scales a few times. Soon she moved smoothly into the first movement of Cabril’s Pastorale. The soft, mellow music flowed throughout the room, and Clarise began to think.

If Sir Byron was standing beneath her window, then he must have a reason for it. Men didn’t just idly stroll by and gaze up at a girl’s window at random, did they? And then vanish again, she reminded herself with some asperity.

Yes, he had, she acknowledged. But what was he supposed to have done? Toss pebbles at her window until she came out to investigate? Call out her name, and arouse half the street? Swarm up to the balcony, fling open the window, and take her into his embrace? This notion had definite possibilities, and Clarise spent the last bit of the first movement contemplating this pleasant fantasy.

She slipped into the second part of the Cabril, the music more compelling and urgent now, mirroring her emotions. If Byron was still interested in her, as his presence beneath her window would seem to indicate, why was he being so blasted evasive? Elusive? Whatever…

The point was, he wasn’t around. Clarise had asked about, quite discretely. She was fairly certain he didn’t have another girl, either here in Caerfaen or back in Dunstanshire, with whom he had an understanding.

Was it possible, she wondered, that he was just a roué like Sir Aartis, flitting from flower to flower but never staying for long? It didn’t seem likely. When he spoke to her, his words weren’t those of a rake. Then there were his kisses. He had been hesitant, almost clumsy in his first attempts to kiss her. Definitely not the kisses of a hardened rake.

So could it be he was afraid of her? Or afraid of his feelings for her? Possible, she supposed, moving into the third section of the Pastorale. The music softened again, the mood now one of peace and tranquility. Very well, Clarise decided, if such was the case, she would have to let him know he had nothing to fear from her. But how?

She would have to arrange to see him, to reassure him. To encourage him. Her hands danced over the keys, as she had imagined Byron’s hands dancing… No! Such does not bear thinking about, she scolded.

Well, since Sir Byron was not communicating with her, Clarise would have to take the initiative. Send him a note, requesting a meeting. He couldn’t well refuse a direct invitation, could he?

Her fingers flew over the keys now, moving into the final crescendo. As the last notes rang out there was a sound like thunder. Startled, Clarise looked up to see Jeanette, her maid, and Mrs. Higgins, the cook, standing in the doorway applauding wildly.

“My lady!” cried Jeanette. “That was so wonderful!”

“Th-thank you,” Clarise stammered, a blush spreading crimson from her neck to the top of her head. “I didn’t know-- I didn’t realize anyone was listening.”

“My lady, how could we not? Your sweet melodies rang out through the halls, just calling to us. Will you play some more?”

“Not right now. I only came in here to be alone and to think. Now I have an urgent errand I must attend to.” Still blushing, she returned to her bedchamber.

~*~

Byron Darby stared with rapidly growing dread at the object in his hand.

It was innocuous enough, nothing to cause such an extreme reaction. A simple piece of parchment, folded and sealed, with his own name written in a neat, precise hand on the exterior.

If he didn’t recognize the sender’s writing style, the seal provided him with all the information he required to make him tremble down to the soles of his sizable boots. Although he had fought fearlessly in the recent conflicts with the Rhuddlani invaders, Byron now found himself in the peculiar position of being afraid. Afraid to open this simple, sealed message.

He placed it unopened on the nearby desk and called for his valet. Once the requested tankard of ale had been produced and Byron had taken a sustaining gulp--and then a couple more for good measure--he returned his attention to the note. Steeling himself to the task, he cracked the wax and unfolded the parchment. As he processed the words written there, he realized it was even worse than he had feared.

“My Dear Sir Byron,” it began. “I wanted to thank you again for a most enjoyable evening at the king’s banquet. I had thought you might call upon me again, but you seem to have been most occupied of late, no doubt with urgent Legion affairs.”

Byron detected a certain tone of sarcasm in this. Not undeserved, admittedly, but it stung none the less. With a scowl he read on. As he did, his eyes widened in surprise.

“Yet you seem to have found time to stand outside my window late last evening.”

“Damnation!’ Byron swore aloud. “She saw me. I knew going there was a mistake!”

He read further, his gaze glued to the parchment in fascinated horror, rather as a cornered mouse regards the cat. “I would be most interested,” the note continued, “in discussing this penchant for window-gazing. A most unusual hobby. Do you recommend it? I shall be at The Black Swan Inn at eight bells tonight, should you care to join me there. Yours, Lady Clarise Rochford.”

Byron put his head in his hands. “Curse it!” he declared. “If only I’d stayed away!’”

A little part of him that knew better gave an evil chuckle and retorted “Could you have?”

To answer this question honestly heralded disaster. Byron knew he was incapable of keeping away from Lady Clarise. God knew he’d tried.

For weeks, before he’d seized the chance to ask her to the king’s banquet, he’d haunted the courtyard outside her window. Like a moth drawn to a flame, he had been unable to resist doing so. Although he’d observed her on only three occasions--each was marked well in his memory--it hadn’t prevented him from pursuing his obsession. He knew just as well he wouldn’t be able to refuse to meet her at The Black Swan.

The locale of this rendezvous held ominous portents in and of itself. Byron had heard interesting reports of the Swan from Aartis Poldane, that most notorious of rakes. Aartis had always affirmed there was no better spot in Caerfaen for a tryst. With its candle-lit and curtained tables, a couple might dine in the utmost secluded intimacy. The wines were exceptionally potent, and the menu consisted of dainty morsels: braised squab legs, oysters and the like which could be fed to one’s companion in a most suggestive manner.

If Lady Clarise was planning to upbraid him for his many faults--failing to call upon her again after the banquet; gazing up at her window--she likely would have done so in her note. No, this smacked almost of a subtle form of blackmail. It he failed to appear at the Black Swan, his habit of window-gazing would no doubt become public knowledge. He’d be subject to ridicule. Worse, he would earn Clarise’s scorn, and this didn’t bear thinking about.

Well, meet her he would, and to the devil with the consequences. After all, how bad could it end up?

~*~

At two minutes before eight bells, Sir Byron Darby, Captain of the King’s Legion, prepared to engage the enemy in hostile territory.

A liveried servant opened the door and ushered him into The Black Swan. Byron squared his broad shoulders and marched forward to meet his doom.

His doom sat demurely at a table in a secluded alcove. The dusky blue silk of her gown, rippling like ocean swells, complemented the startlingly intense blue of her eyes. The creamy expanse of skin revealed by her décolletage, which defied both gravity and propriety, beckoned enticingly.

True to reconnaissance reports, candles flickered invitingly upon the table and a curtain waited to be drawn closed, leaving the table’s occupants in complete seclusion. Lady Clarise smiled up at him from under lowered lashes, with the look of a bird which had just stalked and cornered its first cat.

“Welcome, Sir Byron,” she purred when Byron had dismissed his guide. “Please, sit.” She indicated the empty spot on the banquette next to her. “It will be ever so much more comfortable and cozy, eh?”

Cozy, Byron didn’t doubt. Comfort, he thought as he pulled at his suddenly tight cravat, was no doubt in the eye of the beholder. He slid his massive form into the space indicated, acutely aware of the nearness of her. Her scent--musky and enticing--engaged his senses almost as much as her appearance. Her face--arched brows, huge blue eyes, pert nose, and cupid’s-bow lips; her white throat, smooth and almost begging to be kissed--all served to entice and arouse.

Byron took up the offered glass of wine, brought it to his lips, and drained it. Then, carefully setting it back on the table, he turned to his--what? Companion? No, definitely not. Temptress. That was the word.

Well aware the most tenable position in battle was an offensive one, he decided to begin the fray. “M’lady,” he said, “your note was most…”

She cut him off in mid-sentence. “I fear it was more a summons than an invitation, wasn’t it?” He nodded and opened his mouth to continue, but she went on, almost as if he weren’t even there. “Well, good sir, what did you expect? You invite me to the king’s banquet; you say such sweet things to me; you kiss me, and then you vanish, seemingly from the face of the earth.”

“But I…”

“But me no buts,” she chided, wagging a finger. “It seems to me you have led me on in a most ungentlemanly manner. Then left me cold. A casual plaything, just tossed aside. No doubt you have taken lessons from Sir Aartis.”

“But m’lady, I never…”

“And then! Just when I think you must have been sent on some secret mission for the king, or off foiling some dastardly Rhuddlani plot, I find you practically camping beneath my window.”

“Yes, m’lady, I…”

“And when I go to call to you from my window, you vanish yet again. That poor hedge,” she mused, “may never be the same. But no matter. The issue is my balcony, and your lurking beneath it. Whatever is a girl to think?”

M’lady!” Sir Byron’s exasperation finally got the best of his manners. “May I be allowed to speak now?”

Clarise looked at him, an expression of serene innocence spreading over her countenance. “Of course, of course. Was I preventing you from speaking? Say on, Sir Byron, say on!”

“Thank you! Now, m’lady…” A serving girl approached, bearing platters which she placed upon the table. Byron sighed. He thought he detected a stifled giggle from next to him. He studiously ignored it.

“Now, m’lady…”

“Should we not partake of these delicacies before they become cold? As cold as a roue’s heart?” she added with an arch of one delicately shaped brow.

Driving home her point with all the subtlety of a cavalry charge. Byron regarded the platters with suspicion. “I suppose so, m’lady,” he said resignedly. “My attempts at discourse appear to be missing their mark.” He filled both their plates with an assortment of delicacies ranging from peeled grapes and pomegranate seeds to truffles and oysters, and bits of squab in a fragrant sauce.

They ate in silence, each apparently lost in their own thoughts. Byron glanced surreptitiously at Clarise from time to time, finding her expression now called to mind a cat which has been given charge of guarding the cream pitcher.

Curse it, what was it with him and cats today? He didn’t even particularly like cats. He pushed his plate away and regarded his empty wineglass. He didn’t normally drink wine; give him a good homely ale any day. But he found to his surprise that while the wine went down smoothly enough, it exhibited a remarkable potency. In this case, he reckoned, this might not be such a bad thing.

The glass mysteriously refilled itself with dark red wine, courtesy of his hostess. Byron took a healthy sip. A good fortification was a boon to any battle plan.

“Now, before any further interruptions.” Clarise opened her mouth, but Byron held up a warning hand. “Nay, m’lady, no interruptions.” He glowered repressively, and she closed her Cupid ’s bow lips.

“My actions may have seemed t’ ye those of a cad. On the contrary, they were acts of a gentleman. Had I allowed myself to follow my instincts in the matter, I shouldn’t have wished to answer for the consequences. For the depths of my feelings, nay, my passion, would nae doubt have led me to act in such a way as to compromise your reputation. And I could nae conscience such.”

He knew the tension of the situation was forcing his accent back into the highland burr he tried so hard to control. When he got really excited, his sergeant had told him on more than one occasion, no one could understand a word in ten of what he said. He took a steadying breath and marshaled himself.

He could feel her eyes upon him, but he refused to meet her gaze. He couldn’t trust himself, not right now. As if sensing this, she asked “So, you stayed away because you felt you couldn’t trust yourself in my company?”

“Aye!”

“And your standing beneath my window?”

“Been doin’ it for weeks now. I kept hopin’ to see you, but you were never at your window. Only three times..”

“I see.” Her blue eyes sparkled in the light of the candle. “And now?”

“And now, m’lady… Nay, Clarise. Now, I’m afraid ye shall just have to take yer chances with yer reputation.” He looked up to see a satisfied smile brush her lips.

“My reputation,” she breathed, “can go hang!”

About the Author

Keith W. Willis is a semi-professional word-wrangler and author of the award-winning fantasy/romance Traitor Knight. He lives in upstate NY with his loving, lovely, and extraordinarily patient wife, Patty, who is gracious enough to encourage his writing habit, and even to read (and proofread) his words, despite the fact that she doesn't really like fantasy. That's love. Keith does not drink coffee, but does consume copious quantities of tea. He neither owns nor is owned by any cats. Keith's second novel in the Knights of Kilbourne series, Desperate Knight, is currently in editing, and is slated for a summer 2017 release.

Email: knightsofkilbourne@gmail.com

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