Sunday, October 28, 2012

I WANT THAT ONE by Paige Roberts

I WANT THAT ONE by Paige Roberts

Lady Jane wants Will, for her slave, and she'll pay a high price to get him. Will dreams of a life under Jane's spike heels, but in the future city-state of New York, it's illegal to enslave a free man. Jane, once a notorious hacker, now a network security consultant, isn't used to letting a little thing like the law keep her from getting what she wants.

When a bound and naked Will is delivered to her kitchen door, she takes great pleasure in using leather cat and cuffs and cruel penetrating sex games to tame him. But Will must give up everything to prove his loyalty to her before he can take his rightful place forever kneeling at her perfect feet.


An Excerpt from: I Want That One

Copyright © 2007/2012 Paige Roberts
All rights reserved, Freya's Bower.

By reading this excerpt, you are stating that you are at least 18 years of age. If you are younger than 18 years old, you must exit this site at once.

“I want that one,” Lady Jane said.

Armande was the owner of the most exclusive full service salon in the city-state of New York. In the reconstruction after the great collapse, the new noble class demanded services befitting their status. Sharp entrepreneurs like Armande created salons to fill those demands. A woman could get everything from a pleasure slave to a manicure to a new hat in Armande’s salon, if she was willing to pay top dollar for all three.

“But, my dear Lady Jane,” Armande said, “Will is not merchandise. He is my employee.”

“I know Will’s not a slave, but I want him. Every time I come in, his pretty eyes watch me. And when he fits me for a new pair of shoes, his impertinent hands touch my feet much more than is proper.” The lady watched the tall, slender, dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee as he served drinks to a small group of ladies. His wry comments made them laugh and flutter, and he acknowledged their appreciation with a shy smile.

“Please forgive any small improprieties on his part. I’ll have him fired if you wish, but making him a slave…” The pretentious man with a French accent from Brooklyn shook his head. “Even if he were for sale, he’s not pleasure slave material. Wouldn’t you rather have that one? He is a handsome specimen, non?” Armande gestured to a man chained to a pedestal as living art, dressed only in a collar and a dazzling smile.

“Far too full of himself. Let some woman who wants to have something decorative on her arm for social functions buy him and spoil him rotten. I want your clerk and I will pay handsomely for him.”

“It is illegal to make a free citizen a slave, milady.” Armande grinned slyly. “A respectable slave dealer like myself would…”

Lady Jane wrote a figure down. It was twice the asking price of the slave with the bright smile.
Armande’s greedy eyes widened. “Of course, I would certainly be willing to go that extra mile for a client of your caliber.”

Lady Jane smiled. “I want him delivered tonight.” She turned her back on Armande, dismissing him.




What if there was an artifact that could rekindle the conscience of a killer?
When a vicious vampire and a ruthless vampire hunter touch just such an artifact in these two dark erotic tales, the relationships between humans and immortals could be changed... forever.


An Excerpt from: Sword of Regret
Sword of Day

Copyright © 2006 H.A. Fowler
All rights reserved, Freya's Bower.

By reading this excerpt, you are stating that you are at least 18 years of age. If you are younger than 18 years old, you must exit this site at once.

Before their souls had been opened to the true nature of their former enemies, both she and the hunter had committed heinous crimes against the other. How could she punish this fallen man when she could see herself in his eyes? Feel his sorrow, his self-loathing, as her own? How could she end him when she knew just what terrible lesson he had learned?

"Get up," she snapped, venting some of her frustration and confusion so it wouldn't incinerate her from within.

Armand D'Atellio, king of vampire slayers, remained curled into a fetal ball, hands over his face as if to block the visions of his crimes, weeping like a broken child.

"Why won't you kill me?" he cried, once again hitting her with those gut-wrenching eyes. "I would kill you!"

An ironic smirk touched her lips. "No you wouldn't. Not anymore." She nodded to her guards. "Take him to my bedchamber and leave him there."

* * *

An Excerpt from: Sword of Regret

Sword of Night

Copyright © 2006 H.A. Fowler
All rights reserved, Freya's Bower.
Jake never saw her move, and yet, she suddenly had him up against the wall, one tiny hand around his throat, holding him up off the floor with his feet dangling. Spots whirled around the edges of his vision, but he could still see that her face had changed. The sweet roundness that had so drawn him before had shifted to sharp planes and harsh edges. She snarled loudly, flashing more fangs than he thought should be possible in such a tiny, delicious mouth.

He was harder than ever -- an irony that made the civilized man in him cringe a little. What was it they always said about sex and violence? Nataya knew the effect she was having. She crushed her lush little body against him even as she choked out his life. She pressed the side of her face to his, and drew a long, wet line over the edge of his ear with her cool tongue. He shivered more violently than ever, and still not from fear.

"Now do you believe me?" she purred, raising goosebumps over every inch of his body.


Friday, October 26, 2012

CYBER SCAVENGE by Cheryl Dragon

CYBER SCAVENGE by Cheryl Dragon

If you want a spanking, you'd better head for the Underground! In 2215, any violence -- including kinky sex -- is absolutely illegal.

The rebels below enjoy freedom and plot a takeover someday. They need help accessing the AI so Dom KiRin hacks into the implants of a sexy cyborg who happens to be a submissive.

Bondage and belts build trust between the two men. Unfortunately, the powers aboveground won't let a cyborg disappear without giving the rebels some hell!


Cyber Scavenge
Cheryl Dragon
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2012 Cheryl Dragon
This e-book file contains sexually explicit scenes and adult language which some may find offensive and which is not appropriate for a young audience. Changeling Press E-Books are for sale to adults, only, as defined by the laws of the country in which you made your purchase. Please store your files wisely, where they cannot be accessed by under-aged readers.

Velandrios sat tied to a hard chair by unbreakable metal rope. He opened his eyes and tried to focus. Something was wrong. His cybernetic implants had failed. Vel's hands were handcuffed together in front of him, but there was no pain. The dingy room was small, with a bed shoved up against the wall, a desk with an ancient computer, and a cabinet. He couldn't see anything else.

All he remembered was a failure in his GPS program as he entered a tunnel. Then he was jumped by oddly dressed humans. They'd hit him with something electronic and everything had gone black.

One florescent light flickered overhead as the door opened, and a scantily clad woman entered.

"How are you?" the blonde female with springy curls asked. The odd green curl in the front made him squint.

He'd tried to break free and failed. Then he'd noticed the silence. Even if an implant failed, the artificial buzz was always there. His brain searched for the hum of the Corporate implants he'd hated so much. When no pain shot through him at that treasonous thought, he knew something was different. He almost felt free despite the restraints.

"Where am I?" he asked.

She smiled. "Underground. It's okay. They can't hear your thoughts anymore. You're safe."

It could be a test -- a virtual simulation or an implant-triggered hallucination to test him. Rumors of the Underground were always there among the public. The Corporation knew it was real but tried hard to ignore it. No evidence of people living in the abandoned sewer system had ever been found. The group couldn't be that big.

Vel tried to orient himself. The walls were metal with some stone, nothing like the advanced technology the Corporation used to build things. Every building had been rebuilt or reinforced with Corporate technology. They monitored everything!

Old technology was everywhere here, but he saw a few smooth new screens in the walls. These were not homeless rebels hiding out like the Corporation wanted its military arms to believe.

He looked at the woman's face and saw a small metal piece at one temple. He wasn't going to get his hopes up or believe in anything yet. "They'll come for me."

"No, they won't." A man stepped out from behind Vel. Dressed in black except for a bright purple belt, the man stood about six feet tall and was leanly muscled. No physical competition if Vel could get free. If this was a virtual test, however, this man was perfect temptation for Vel.

The shock of black hair on the rebel's pale skin drew Vel to study him further. The purple streak in the man's hair was odd. The bumps in his shirts signaled piercings. All signs of a rebel. Vel was indeed in the Underground or a great simulation.

Vel tried to control his arousal. "I'm a criminal. They will hunt me down. If they can't bring me back, they will kill me remotely." The Corporation made its citizens fairly comfortable, considering the wars, floods, and disease outside of the walls of the Chicago territory. If you followed the rules, you could live in peace with sufficient food and work. Happy wasn't part of the promise. However, severe punishment for criminals was guaranteed.

"You're as much of a criminal as I am. Less, actually." The free man grinned. "I'm a hacker, and I sexually dominate all the men I can. All you did was want to have sex. A virtual sex program turned you in for a fantasy. You didn't even touch another person." He leaned in over the restrained man.

The blonde picked up the implants taken from Vel's face and left the room. Vel felt lost, alone with a hot man. A hacker. Since his arrest, Vel had played by the rules. He'd tried so hard to fit in and avoid more pain. The urge to let it all go bubbled deep within him.

"Illegal sex. BDSM is unacceptable. You're just asking for them to find you by kidnapping me." He wondered how the blonde had managed to avoid recapture.

"Not down here. In the Underground, you can do whatever you want -- as long as the other person agrees. Aren't you going to thank me?" He grabbed a knife from his belt and cut open the shirt of Vel's uniform around the metal rope until it was shredded.

"Thank you? I don't know what the hell you're doing, but I didn't volunteer." He tried to ignore the large hands sliding over his chest. When the hacker pinched Vel's nipples, he fought the arousal.

Vel wanted to give in and take any chance to get what he craved from a man. For the first time in years, he allowed himself to think of being spanked and fucked hard. Of his cock being slapped as another cock was shoved down his throat.

Those very thoughts, alone with a virtual sex program, had gotten him arrested a few years ago. Not one actual act with another human, and his real life had ended. Now he imagined it with this man in graphic detail. There was no buzz in his head. No pain. No mental correction. Only desire for more pulsed throughout him. The pleasure of sexual freedom flooded his body.

The world didn't melt away at his failing the test.

The Corporation wasn't behind this.

It was real.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

SKYE HIGH by LaVerne Thompson

“Who knew that traveling first class could be so…well…enlightening?” Reilly Greene thought as she watched her old teenage crush now fully grown, lick his fingers. Who the hell was she kidding? Traveling anywhere, anyhow with Ben Skye was enough to make her weak at the knees and a few other places in between.

Ben Skye thought the possibility of having a heart attack at 33,000 feet in the air just might not be a bad way to go – if Reilly was the one giving it to him. But could he convince her that once their feet hit the ground he could still take her to the heavens, and this time it would be for the rest of their lives. 


Reilly sank down into the plush leather chair of the business first class section window seat and sighed in relief, she was exhausted. She’d only had two days to get ready for this trip, yes she’d known about it for two months but it was only a couple of days ago that she knew she’d be able to make it for sure. When she finally got her money back that snake of her accountant had stolen from her, only then did she book the trip. At first she thought she was ruined, all her hard work down the drain. None of the people involved would be able to recover all their money the accountant had been entrusted with. Still she got back enough to continue to run her taxi service and splurge on her first vacation in years.
She spent every dime she had on her year-old business, and the company was running in the black. Her car service provided a more exclusive kind of taxi service. More expensive than a cab of course, but cheaper than booking a limo. Her clients traveled in style and luxury in black Explorer SUVs with plush leather interiors and shock absorbers that made it seem you floated on air. Accounts were set up online so no money exchanged hands with the drivers and all bookings were done online or through a Smartphone app she had designed. Reilly had six full-time drivers, two part-time ones for the twilight hours, and a manager. When the cars were not in use they were kept in garage space she rented, and she also had a contract with a local mechanic to service the SUVs. All of this helped to keep her operational expenses low. Business was good, even better now she had her money back and at the last minute decided to take the trip to see her best friend get married after all.
The business first class seat was the only thing available on such short notice and a treat for her. Then she had to rush to get everything together because her passport had expired and a renewal had to be expedited. She couldn’t wait to see her friend Trisha. There was a time when they saw each other every day. Then after college Trisha moved to England. It had been a year since they’d been in the same country at the same time and now she was getting married. To some Count no less. But Trisha always looked like she was meant to be royalty with that ice blond beauty thing going for her, which was in complete contrast color wise from Reilly’s rich dark chocolate skin tone and curly hair down to her waist. If she ever straightened it, it would hang down to her butt. But she liked her hair just the way it was thank you very much. Women paid a fortune to get that look. She simply had to shower, towel dry, run a big-toothed comb or fingers through her locks and she was good to go.
Reilly settled back into her seat, took the complementary drink and sighed in pure bliss. The seats in first class quickly filled up, all but the seat next to her, not that she minded. After pretty much getting very little sleep these last few weeks due to the worry of her finances, and then the rush to make this trip, she was mentally and physically exhausted. She planned on sleeping through the twelve-hour flight. After she finished her drink, she took her sandals off and put on the cozy socks the airlines provided for them. She couldn’t put the seat back into the bed position yet, but she got the blanket out and snuggled under it. Being in the more secluded area on the upper deck of the plane, everyone in her section had already settled down. Those in the business or coach classes were a level below so they didn’t have to traverse past her section. As soon as her eyes closed she drifted into slumber.
The husky voice of the male seated next to her as he spoke to someone…the air hostess?…drew her away from sleep. “Mmm…” she groaned attracted to the sound, she turned toward it. She opened her eyes and drowned within the vibrant green gaze that stared back at her. Reilly had seen eyes like those before and they drew her to a memory from a night a long time ago.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012



Can you find true love in a kiss? How about a dozen?Lucy Duckworth is comfortable with her life and in her own skin, and her habit of picking up orphaned cats is charmingly noble. Yet when her roommate asks her to fill in at a kissing booth during the Winter Carnival, Lucy's even-keeled existence suddenly tilts.

Matthew Kincaide has one simple motto: live off the land, keep your head down, don't talk a whole lot and never trust a woman. Divorced and not about to give a female control over him again, all he wants is to deliver his animals for the petting zoo and go home. Too bad his annoying brother coaxes him into buying tickets for the kissing booth.

Lucy's and Matthew's first kiss ends with a violent sneeze, but she can't forget that first lip-tingling, take-me-away moment. Though Matthew's shocked by his first reaction, he lines up for a second chance. Surely lightning can't strike twice. Will winter fun and a random accident derail their quest to find out how many kisses it takes to fall in love?



"There's no way I'm getting in that kissing booth." Lucy Duckworth crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head for emphasis. The vigorous motion sent her brunette curls bouncing over her shoulders. She glared at the closed bathroom door her roommate had disappeared behind. All three of Lucy's cats lined the hallway, staring as well. "The only way that would ever happen is if you were dying."

"I think I am." The unmistakable sound of barfing followed the pathetic statement.

"Pam, are you okay?" Lucy knocked on the door. Her anger evaporated in the face of her concern. The calico sat on Lucy's feet.

Another round of heaving preceded an answer. "I knew when that grumpy woman coughed on me two days ago I'd get the flu. I just knew it." The toilet flushed. The tap water ran, and seconds later, the bathroom door opened. Pam stood in the frame, her skin pale, her eyes watery, and her chin quivering. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her oversized blue Indiana Pacers sweatshirt. She must really be sick if she's chosen to cover all possible skin like that. "Holy crap, there's no way I can go to the Winter Carnival like this, let alone kiss guys, unless you want me to infect the whole town."

Lucy's shoulders slumped. The black cat, Shadow, brushed against Pam's shins. "No, you should be in bed." She followed her friend into her room and waited while the other woman climbed under the covers, closely followed by Shadow. "Do you want some ice water or ginger ale?" She tucked a brown paisley comforter around Pam then smoothed sweaty blonde bangs away from her warm forehead. "You have a fever." Shadow curled into a ball at her side, purring.

"I just want to sleep." Pam's brown eyes widened. "Please say you'll take my place at the booth? Or do it at least until I can track down someone else, okay?"

"I don't know.­" Her stomach clenched. In her twenty--seven years, she'd only been kissed a handful of times. Knowing she'd have to do it multiple times with strangers this evening sent shivers crashing down her spine - and not the good kind. "Kissing's your thing, and you're so comfortable around guys.­" Pam's string of broken hearts and less--than--moral love life was legendary, at least around Francesville.

"Come on, Lucy." A string of coughing interrupted Pam's speech. "It's for a good cause. Playground equipment for the elementary school. Just think of those excited kids when they get their shiny, new playground this spring."

Crap. Lucy chewed her bottom lip. She never could resist helping others - human or feline. "Fine, but you have to feed the furries later, since I probably won't be home tonight until ten."
As she spoke, the other two cats - the calico, Happy, and a ginger male, Punkin - jumped onto the bed and settled in.

Pam nodded. She snuggled into the covers. "Deal. Don't bring any more back with you, even if they do look at you with big eyes and have a great purr. We're running out of room with these three."

"I'll try." Taking in stray cats had become a problem. The three she already owned were hers because she couldn't place them in homes. Francesville didn't have an animal shelter, so there was no other option for the strays. Dogs and cats that were caught by the local population or small police force were taken to the pound in the next town over.

"No trying. I mean it. No more cats, all right? I'm feeling like the old woman who lived in a shoe, except with cats instead of kids. Sooner or later, Old Man Harley will come for an inspection, then we'll both be thrown out."

That was true, and an ongoing fear both she and Pam shared. When they'd leased the tiny two--bedroom house from the older man who'd owned the property for almost thirty years, it had been with the caveat that he might pop in from his RV travels anytime to look over the property. That and he'd explicitly told them they couldn't have pets, not even a hamster or a goldfish.
"I promise. No more cats."

"Or anything else. I mean it. Heaven knows if you come across a wounded bird while you're out there, you'll bring it home." Another bout of coughing had Pam wiping her mouth on her sleeve again as her eyelids fluttered closed.

"I know, I know. Hope you feel better." Lucy exited and left the door open in case the cats needed out.

Once in her bedroom, she grabbed a pillow off the bed and screamed into it, releasing the built-up tension. It was a stress relief mechanism she'd used since her teens when things were rough dealing with her mom. As it was, she still heard her proper grandmother lecturing her: Ladies don't outwardly show any expression except being pleasant. Men don't want to be weighed down with female histrionics.

She took a deep breath, let it out, then tossed the pillow onto the bed. Though her grandmother had passed away more than five years before, her old-school views of male and female relations lingered. How disappointed would the old lady have been, had she found out Lucy hadn't gotten around to dating for the sheer excuse that she found the company of rescue cats more fun? Plus, Francesville wasn't exactly chock--full of good men.

Not her immediate concern. Lucy planted her hands on her hips and contemplated her closet. What did a woman wear when she'd be presented with dozens of strangers all intent on smooching? Naturally, her thoughts and worries focused on the upcoming debacle. She'd be manning the kissing booth tonight under duress - a job Pam did every year with enthusiasm. Pam had guys lining up to wait for half an hour just for a shot at her famous pucker. Of course Pam enjoyed the task. She used to say it was a good way to weed out guys without having to date them. A guy who can't kiss isn't worth knowing, was her favorite motto.

Ugh. Now it's my job.

Did that mean she needed long-wearing lip gloss or just lip balm, and was there something wrong with her that the thought of having to lip tango with strange men had her pulse pounding and palms sweating?

After yanking a pair of jeans from the dresser, Lucy stormed into the closet and grabbed a thick, ivory sweater from a shelf. The cable-knit piece would keep her warm enough with a scarf, and if she were lucky, she wouldn't need a coat. Too many things to keep track of at the carnival made for a better night.

Pam owes me big time.


Monday, October 22, 2012

MISS ME BABY by Wendi Zwaduk

Say you’ll haunt me, since I’ll never stop loving you.

Felicity Black never quite understood love. She worked her assets to get what she wanted and didn’t care who got in the way. Until she met John. He saw past her superficial self to the woman inside. Death separated her from John before she could tell him how she truly felt. Now she’s got her chance...just not in the way she expected.
John wanted Felicity to haunt him. She had been the only woman to stir not only his heart but his soul as well. But the woman claiming to be his lost love can’t be her... Felicity was dead. He has to decide whether to trust his gut or walk away from a new start.
Can a second chance at a first impression lead to love or a lifetime of heartbreak?
Reader Advisory: This story contains an out-of-body experience, voyeurism, spanking, rough sex, masturbation, and a chance for love to strike twice.

By reading any further, you are stating that you are 18 years of age, or over.
 If you are under the age of 18, it is necessary to exit this site.
 Copyright © Wendi Zwaduk, 2012
 All Rights Reserved, Total-E-Ntwined Limited, T/A Total-E-Bound.

Excerpt From: Miss Me Baby

"She didn’t go into the water alone. She had help."

John stared at the flat line on the computer screen and rubbed his chin. He couldn’t believe his ears. The last night he’d seen Felicity, she hadn’t been near the lake. Eight years’ time made more than the memory muddy. Some days he could barely remember her face. Other times, his heart ached like she’d just passed.

He focused on the bad day eight years in the past. The day she’d died. She’d hated water-boating, swimming... Being in water scared her to death. But the pulsating bars on the sound programme accompanied by the words in the dialogue box didn’t lie-someone had called the police tip line.

Someone wanted him to pay for her death. Didn’t the caller realise John had paid for losing Felicity every day since she’d passed?

"Can you play it again? I thought the person sounded familiar, but now I’m not sure." John continued to scrub the back of his hand against his chin.
"She didn’t go into the water alone. She had help."

"Did you see the person who helped her?"


"Who was it?"

"John. John Babcock."

"Can I get your name, sir?"

"Whoever called, they hung up before we got a name. Untraceable, too." Detective Henry Gates tapped his pencil on the pad of paper. "I came here because there’s something fishy about this call. Here’s the thing. We’ve checked your car. Run through your apartment with a fine-tooth comb. If you had anything to do with the drowning of Felicity Black, then we can’t find it." He sighed. "I’ve talked to Ryan. He’s got the most to lose and I can’t find a damned thing on either of you."

"You took my statement. I was right here at Bar Twenty-Three playing a set with Marauder. If I’d known she was going to"-he swallowed past the lump in his throat-"hurt herself, I wouldn’t have taken the stage. I loved her and was helping her get treatment to overcome her demons. We were working on having a future together."

"I believe you-and have all along-but things have never added up in this case." Gates tossed the pencil onto the table. "What’s got me flummoxed is the tip. It’s been eight years. Why didn’t they come forward before? What changed?"

"Nothing’s changed." John sat back in his seat and folded his arms. He crossed his ankles. "I’ve gone through that night in my head so many times, wondering what I could’ve done to change the outcome. She had the divorce papers. Are you sure Ryan knows nothing?"

"Nothing. His alibi is airtight, and with no life insurance or assets other than their home, he had nothing to gain from her passing. Think hard. You’re certain no one has a grudge against you?"

"There will always be patrons here at Bar Twenty-Three who hate my guts for being thrown out or not allowed in, but I doubt they’d stoop to framing me for the death of my girlfriend. They probably don’t remember it."

"Keep your eyes open and let me know if anything comes to mind." Henry stood and smoothed out his suit jacket. "If you think of something else, anything else, let me know." He offered his hand. "I appreciate you speaking to me."

John shook hands with Gates and nodded. "If the coroner ruled it suicide, then the call is the only reason you’ve reopened the case?"

"It’s procedure to follow all leads. This case bothered me from the start because there’s still so much that looks simple on paper, but doesn’t play out simple in actuality. Thank you for your time."


Thursday, October 18, 2012

MEREDITH'S PRIDE by Missy Martine

MEREDITH'S PRIDE by Missy Martine

Galactic Nuptials Book Three

Meredith Carter is lonely and just wants to find someone to love. The nice people at Galactic Nuptials assure him that some of their clients prefer male mates.

The leader of the Chaarta pride sent all their cubs into hiding with Delsin and Etu when the war started. Now, they're all that's left of their pride. They're desperate for a mate to care for the five small young ones. When they find the picture of the lovely creature with long brown hair in Galactic Nuptial’s catalog, they know they’ve found their mate.

It’s too bad they didn’t read the small print. What’re they going to do when they find out "Meredith" can be a male’s name too?

Delsin sniffed the air and came fully awake when the aroma of something tasty settled in his nose. It was his turn to cook, but someone must have taken pity on him and saved him from the arduous chore. He quickly dressed and headed for the kitchen.
He came to a halt just inside the door. Mer was standing in front of the stove, dressed in a pair of shorts and no shirt. He was humming some tune and wiggling his hips in time to the beat. Delsin felt his cock begin to fill, his lion stretching and purring inside him. Swallowing hard, he cleared his throat.
Mer turned around and smiled. “Good morning! Did you sleep well? I figured since you went to the trouble to bring all this food from Earth, I’d give you a hand and cook breakfast for everyone.” He took a step back and bit his lip. “Is that okay?”
Delsin took two steps into the room and smiled. “Absolutely, it’s okay. It smells wonderful.”
“What’s that heavenly smell?” Etu walked through the door, raking his fingers through his hair. Brother, my lion is fighting me. He wants Mer for a mate, and I’m not sure I can control him.
Delsin looked at the heat in Etu’s eyes and groaned inwardly. I know what you’re going through. My own beast is determined to claim the little man no matter what I want. We need to fight it, Etu. We need to find a female shifter that’s willing to come live with our pride so we can increase our numbers. Eventually our lions will understand this.
“That smell is the wonderful aroma of bacon, my friend. There’s nothing like starting the day with several thick slices of pig to go with your scrambled eggs.” Mer chuckled and put another pan on the cooking unit. He vigorously stirred a bowl of runny, yellow liquid.
“Man, that smells good.” Hakan walked in, followed closely by Knoton. “When are we eating?”
“Any minute now. “ Mer poured the contents of the bowl into the hot pan. “Take a seat, and I’ll bring your plates to you.” A few minutes later he was setting plates of eggs and bacon in front of each man. “Go ahead and get started. I’m gonna run and check on the babies, and then I’ll come back and join you.”
Delsin watched him walk down the hall and groaned.
“Goddess, this is fantastic.” Knoton shoveled the food in his mouth.
Hakan narrowed his eyes. “For somebody that’s not interested in taking him as a mate, the two of you are almost drooling watching him. What’s going on?”
Knoton snorted. “If you really don’t want him, would you mind if I take a stab at getting him to like me?”
In the blink of an eye, Delsin had Knoton up against the wall with his hands at his throat. “You will keep your paws off of him. Do you understand?”
Etu leaned in close. “We will end your life in a very painful way if you don’t stay away.”
Knoton grinned. “I can see how the two of you don’t really want or care about the little human.”
Delsin tightened his hands and then froze when a bloodcurdling scream came from the back of the house.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012



A Sarah Woolson Mystery

After meeting the Irish poet Oscar Wilde, Sarah and her brother Samuel make their way down Telegraph Hill. A gunshot shatters the quiet night and Samuel slumps to the ground, gravely wounded. Sarah fights to stop the bleeding, her mind whirling. Who would want to harm Samuel? Was he even the intended target?

Vowing to find the truth, she returns to Hill. But instead of finding answers, she stirs up more questions, and multiple murders. When the police arrest a man she believes to be innocent, Sarah takes his case. Too late she realizes she may have just added her own name to the killer’s list!

Remy gingerly moved his jaw from side to side, then gave a labored smile. “Welcome everyone. I am pleased you could join us this evening.”

Despite his obvious discomfort, our host’s voice was pleasant, carrying a strong flavor of the Deep South. I was aware that he had traveled to San Francisco from New Orleans a decade or so earlier, and had brought with him a number of old world customs, including a penchant for long, and in my opinion disagreeable, green cigars and zydeco music. Although I had met him only once or twice, I had come to appreciate his affability and easy charm.
“Tonight we are in for a rare treat,” he continued, smiling at the tall young man who came to stand behind him. “Mr. Oscar Wilde, author of a recently published collection of poetry, and a forerunner in the Aesthetic Movement, has graciously agreed to meet with us here in my home for a more informal visit than his appearance last night at Platt’s Hall.”
Wilde smiled and executed a small, somewhat affected bow, which precipitated a murmur from the audience.
“Too utterly utter,” came a man’s low, sarcastic voice from behind me. There was a smattering of laughter, and I knew at once that the remark had come from Claude Dunn. Not that the comment was original; the expression had been reported with great humor in newspapers throughout the poet’s American tour, along with other so-called “Wildean” expressions, Mortimer Remy shot Dunn a censuring look, then turned his attention back to the guest of honor. “Considering Mr. Wilde’s views concerning architectural design and household furnishings, I pray that he will overlook the many deficiencies to be found in my own humble abode. I entreat him to turn his attention instead onto literary matters, commencing, if he will be so kind, with how he came to produce such a fine volume of poetry at the tender age of twenty-seven.”
There was polite applause as the publisher stood aside to allow Mr. Wilde to take his place in front of the audience. I had, of course, read newspaper articles describing the Irish poet, but it was nonetheless startling to meet him in person. Wilde was already known across two continents as an opinionated dandy with a cutting, sometimes treacherous, wit. He had a long, somewhat fleshy face, full lips, and heavy-lidded eyes placed to either side of a prominent nose. Attired in a maroon velvet smoking jacket edged with braid, a lavender silk shirt, flowing green cravat, knee-britches, and black shoes with silver buckles, he looked as if he had just stepped out of an eighteenth-century French drawing room. A few muffled laughs once again rippled through the room, and Dunn made more acerbic remarks. Remy’s piercing expression finally silenced the annoying man.
Whether or not he had come to Remy’s house with the intention of speaking about the Aesthetic Movement, Wilde seemed happy enough to accede to the publisher’s request that he confine his discussion to his literary efforts. Having produced a slim volume of the book titled simply, POEMS, he commenced reading in a dull, rather nasal voice. I must say I found his manner surprisingly languorous, as if he were bored by the necessity to speak to us at all.
Wilde had been reciting for only a few minutes, when his performance was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening. A moment later, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was rolled into the room. She was small and very wrinkled, her wispy white hair tucked beneath a black hat with a short black veil. She was wearing a black dress with ivory-colored lace at the neck and wrists, and a simple mourning broach pinned to her bodice. Despite her advanced years, she had bright blue eyes that appeared to miss nothing as they swept over the room. A muscular man in his fifties, dressed in dark livery and a battered gray felt cap, pushed her squeaky conveyance into the room. He had a craggy face, and black eyes that looked out suspiciously from beneath bushy black and white eyebrows. A long scar ran from his right jawline down his throat until it was lost beneath his shirt collar.
“Who is that woman?” I whispered to Samuel.
“That’s Mrs. Montgomery, a wealthy widow who lives in the large house at the top of the hill. I don’t know the name of the man pushing her wheelchair, but—“
“His name is Bruno Studds,” said Emmett Gardiner, leaning over so that he could address us in hushed tones. “And you’re right, Samuel, Mrs. Montgomery is quite well-to-do. Her late husband owned the largest lumber business in the city. She’s been a particularly generous benefactor to the writers living here on the hill. It was she who financed the launch of the SAN FRANCISCO WEEKLY when Uncle Mortimer founded it ten years ago.”

“Doesn’t she sponsor The Butter Ball Literary Competition each year?” I asked, referring to the much sought after literary award.
“She does indeed,” Gardiner answered, his eyes dancing in the gleam of the room’s gas lights. “Not only does the winner receive a sizeable monetary prize, but Mrs. Montgomery publishes his book at her own expense.”

“I’ve never understood what “Butter Ball” stands for?” I said.
“I’ve heard rumors that it was the name of her only son’s favorite pony,” Gardiner explained. “Lawrence was an aspiring writer who died quite young. A year or two after his death, Mrs. Montgomery established the award in his honor.”
Our conversation was cut short as Mortimer Remy greeted the latest arrival. “Mrs. Montgomery,” he drawled, his manners at their Southern best. “I am so pleased that you could come. I regret any inconvenience it may have caused you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Remy,” Mrs. Montgomery replied, holding out a slightly trembling hand. Remy took her frail fingers and brought them to his lips.
“Please, do make yourself comfortable, dear lady. You’re just in time to hear Mr. Wilde read from his volume of poetry.” Smiling, he indicated an area in front of the fire that had evidently been reserved for her wheelchair.
Mrs. Montgomery returned her host’s smile, and without being told, Studds wheeled his mistress to the designated place. As soon as she was settled, he rearranged the blanket covering her lap, although I couldn’t imagine how she would tolerate it considering the heat emanating from the hearth. The man then went to stand stoically behind his mistress’s chair.
Before Wilde could resume reading there was yet another disturbance in the foyer, and an arrogant looking man wearing a topcoat and bowler hat stepped into the room. I recognized him at once as Jonathan Aleric, a celebrity of sorts, and owner and editor of the BAY AREA EXPRESS, a recently established local newspaper.
Despite his haughty demeanor, I thought Aleric to be a rather ordinary looking individual: in his early forties, he was of average height and build, with graying hair, a large and rather untidy salt and pepper mustache, a pocked complexion, and washed-out blue eyes. Some twelve years earlier, Aleric had gained international fame by penning AN UNCIVIL WAR, an immensely popular book describing General Grant’s 1863 march on Vicksburg. In mere weeks, the book had sold out across the nation – surprisingly, sales were even brisk in the South – casting Aleric as the defining voice of the horrendous war between the states.
In the years following the book’s publication, his devoted readers waited expectantly for more stirring words to issue from the great author’s pen. When none were forthcoming, Aleric’s name gradually faded, but never disappeared from the literary scene. He was still regarded as one of the finest American writers of our time, and gave occasional lectures on the war, and his craft, throughout the country. Two years ago he migrated to San Francisco, determined to reinvent himself in the field of journalism. According to Samuel, the relationship between Aleric and Mortimer Remy had been strained from the beginning, both professionally and personally. Over the past year, Aleric seemed to have made it his life’s purpose to put Remy’s newspaper out of business.
If that goal had been his only sin, Remy probably would have been able to cope with it as one more example of journalistic rivalry in an extremely competitive town. But Aleric had not contented himself with stealing Remy’s readership; he had also stolen the affections of his lovely wife, dealing the Southerner a devastating, and humbling, blow. When Remy’s wife succumbed to a lung disease just months after she had scandalously deserted her husband, a war hardly less intense than that between the states broke out between the two men.
“Aleric!” Remy’s face had flushed red with fury. “Good God, man, have you no sense of decency? This is my home, and you most certainly were not invited!”
Ignoring his host, Aleric stepped casually inside the parlor. His angular, sharp-featured face was creased in a self-satisfied smile, as if Remy’s reaction were everything he had hoped for.
“I said what are you doing here?” Remy again demanded. His brown eyes bulged, and his hands were balled into fists. I honestly feared he might be angry enough to strike the interloper.
“Calm down, Mortimer, you’ll do yourself an injury,” Aleric said calmly. If anything, his smile grew even more taunting. “I came to meet Mr. Wilde, of course. Isn’t that the purpose of tonight’s little get-together?”
“You bast…” Remy stopped, fighting to collect himself. He glanced uncomfortably at Wilde, who was watching the episode with quiet amusement, then at his tense guests. He took one or two steadying breaths, before continuing in a more composed voice. “As I said, you were not invited, Aleric. I will thank you to leave my home. At once, if you please.”
Aleric laughed, dismissing Remy’s words with a careless wave of his hand. “Nonsense. I’m here to make Mr. Wilde’s acquaintance, and I shall not leave until I have done so.” He gave the Irish poet a little bow. “I was privileged to hear your lecture on “Art Decoration” at Pratt’s Hall last night, Mr. Wilde. It was truly inspirational. With you as their representative, the Aesthetic Movement cannot fail to be a grand success.”
Wilde studied Aleric for a long moment, and then nodded his coiffed head as if to an admiring subject.
“That is kind of you to say, Mr—? He looked questioningly at his host. “Aleric, was it?” He paused a moment, then his lazy eyes suddenly brightened. “Jonathan Aleric! You are the author of AN UNCIVIL WAR, are you not? I remember reading it as a young lad. A marvelous book. It was quite popular in Ireland after your war between the states.”
Aleric beamed. “How kind of you to say so, Mr. Wilde. I’m honored that you enjoyed my book.”
Remy’s face had grown very red, and I saw his jaw muscles clench as he tried to regain control of the situation. “I apologize for this rude interruption, Mr. Wilde. I am sure Mr. Aleric will do the gentlemanly thing and retire, immediately, from my home.”
“Come now, Mr. Remy,” Wilde protested, “Mr. Aleric is a noted author, indeed, a kindred spirit. And he has traveled all this way—“ He fixed his gaze on the newcomer. “I assume you have come from some distance to see me, Mr. Aleric? The walk alone up all those stairs must, in any sane man’s opinion, constitute a journey of inestimable miles.”
I truly feared our host might explode. He opened his mouth to speak, but Wilde cut him off. “After all, life is too important to be taken seriously, don’t you agree? For myself, I make it a point to avoid arguments; they are always vulgar and all too often convincing.”
Wilde’s languid eyes turned to Remy, as if awaiting his agreement. Our host took another deep breath, but there was little he could do but accede to his guest’s wishes. He gave a curt nod of his head, then wordlessly motioned for his nemesis to take a seat. Several people moved aside so that the author could make his way to a vacant seat next to Tull O’Hara, but Aleric held up a hand as if to signify that he wished to cause no inconvenience. Instead, he settled in the seat Remy had occupied prior to his arrival.
Our host’s face grew even darker, but after catching sight of Wilde’s obvious amusement, he placed a chair to Aleric’s left and sat down. Stone faced, he indicated that Wilde should resume reading.
“That is good of you, Mr. Remy,” Wilde said, once again picking up his book of poems. He gave a rueful smile. “Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.”
The tension triggered by Aleric’s arrival, never truly dissipated as the long evening marched drearily onward. Wilde continued to read, but I sensed a general unrest in the room, as one desultory poem followed another. I enjoy good poetry, but these offerings were rather too morose for my taste.
When at long last the Irishman brought his recitation to a close, there was polite applause and one or two thinly disguised sighs of relief, one of them coming from Claude Dunn’s expectant wife Lucy. But it appeared that the poet was not yet finished, and to my dismay he went on to lecture us for another hour on the “House Beautiful,” and how his opinion of Americans as barbaric was reinforced each time he was introduced to yet another “ill-looking room in an ill-built house.”
Finally, mercifully, he concluded his talk by instructing us on how to build and furnish houses that would “live in song and tradition, and delight the hearts of generations of aesthetes yet unborn.”
This time the applause was less enthusiastic. Even Mortimer Remy seemed visibly dismayed that Wilde had veered from his request to focus on his literary career. I must admit that I was more than ready to take my leave of the gathering and return home. I turned to say as much to Samuel, but found him engaged in a heated conversation with Emmett Gardiner and Claude Dunn. Dunn’s wife, I noticed, remained in her seat looking resigned and clearly exhausted.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Stephen Parke slip away to share a few words with the attractive Isabel Freiberg. It was a brief meeting, but it was clear from the way they looked at each other that I had correctly accessed their feelings. When the girl’s father pulled on his topcoat and made toward the door, the young couple quickly drew apart, Stephen looking flustered, the young woman’s face flushing a becoming pink. Taking her arm, the man nodded curtly at the writer, then led the girl none too gently out the door.

Stephen watched the two make their way down the hill, then reluctantly turned back to the room. He and my brother spoke quietly for several moments, then Stephen paid his respects to our host. After bidding me farewell, he departed the cottage.
As Samuel and I approached Remy to say our own goodbyes, we found that he had joined Emmett Gardiner and Jonathan Aleric, and were chatting to Oscar Wilde. Mrs. Montgomery sat in her wheelchair in front of the fireplace, speaking quietly to Claude Dunn. Looking toward his weary wife, he seemed to question something she had said. The elderly widow smiled at Lucy, then nodded her head at Dunn. I sincerely hoped she was suggesting that the man take his poor wife home and put her to bed!
Unfortunately, that did not appear to be the case. Despite his earlier disparaging remarks, Dunn moved to join the others clustered about Wilde, followed a moment later by Mrs. Montgomery, wheeled there by her man, Bruno Studds. Clearly, the poet was in his element.
Mortimer Remy, on the other hand, looked miserable. He was once again holding his swollen jaw, all the while darting hostile looks at Jonathan Aleric, who was chatting with the poet as if they were long lost friends. Finally, he seemed unable to bear it any longer.
“Come, everyone,” he said, forcing a painful smile. “Our guest has had a long journey, and I am sure that he is weary. We must allow him to return to his hotel.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mortimer, the evening is still young,” Aleric put in with a patronizing smile. “Were you aware that Mr. Wilde plans to write a stage play? We were just discussing—“
To my surprise, Mrs. Montgomery spoke up from her wheelchair. “Mortimer is quite right, Mr. Aleric. Mr. Wilde is obviously fatigued after entertaining us with his splendid poetry.” Before Aleric could object, she turned to the faithful man standing silently behind her chair. “It is a clear evening and the moon is out, but the path can be treacherous at night. Please light Mr. Remy’s guests down the steps, Bruno.”
“I won’t hear of it, Mrs. Montgomery,” Remy protested. “Bruno must take you back up the hill to your house. I will see my guests down the hill.”
“Nonsense,” she replied, waving a dismissive hand. “You have put up a brave front all evening, Mortimer, but you are obviously suffering a toothache. Soak it in whiskey and get a good night’s sleep. That’s the ticket.”
Remy looked at her in dismay. “But—“
“I’ll hear no more argument.” She looked at Remy’s gruff typesetter, who was silently making his way toward the front door. “Your man O’Hara will take me home, will you not, Tull?”
The crotchety man stared at the woman in sullen surprise. I feared he might be about to refuse when Remy sighed.
“I suppose if Tull is willing—“
“His willingness is neither here nor there,” the old woman said with acerbity. “He is your employee and naturally will be happy to accede to your wishes. In truth, it is past time we all made our way home”
Her tone was so resolute that even Oscar Wilde was forced to stop talking, appearing affronted that someone had had the effrontery to interrupt his discourse.
“My dear madam, you speak of time” he said in a droll voice, peering at her down his long nose. “As the brilliant Brendan Francis put it, “’When you are deeply absorbed in what you are doing, time gives itself to you like a warm and willing lover.’”
Mrs. Montgomery did not appear impressed. “I’m confident that even Mr. Francis eventually learned not to overstay his welcome, Mr. Wilde. It is a lesson worth cultivating.”
Before the poet could object, the widow motioned for Studds to take up his lantern and lead the way out of the cottage. Mortimer Remy shrugged in resignation. No doubt his toothache was finally getting the better of him.
Without further comment, Wilde donned his oversized, fur-trimmed coat and followed Mrs. Montgomery’s man toward the door, Jonathan Aleric close upon his heels. After bidding our host a good evening, Samuel and I trailed the group out of the cottage, pausing a moment to wish Emmett Gardiner goodnight before he turned to walk to his own home.
Studds led the way, lantern held above his head. Wilde and Aleric followed behind him, while Samuel and I brought up the rear. Mrs. Montgomery’s man was obviously familiar with the path, for he set a brisk pace.
We had nearly reached the top of the Filbert Street Steps, when Aleric lost his footing and started to fall. Samuel bent over and caught him by the arm. As I, too, stepped forward to lend a hand, the quiet night was shattered by a loud explosion.
Time seemed to hang suspended as I looked around, searching for what had caused the boom. I heard my brother utter a single muffled gasp, and turned to find him standing perfectly still beside me, his expression one of astonishment.
Then, suddenly, his legs seemed to give way from beneath him. I watched in horror as, without another sound, he crumbled to the ground like a rag doll.

Monday, October 15, 2012

MALICE STRIKER by Jianne Carlo

MALICE STRIKER by Jianne Carlo

Viking Vengeance I

Can a mere mortal Viking tame the daughter of a goddess?

When Scotland’s King Kenneth orders his death and kidnaps his sister, the Viking Brökk—the Malice Striker—plans his vengeance: he’ll steal the king’s bastard daughter from Sumbarten Abbey and use her to buy his sister's freedom. But his schemes go awry when his liege lord commands him to wed Skatha—and when he finds five women instead of one at the Abbey, none will claim the King as father.

When the Viking abducts Skatha and her women, she’s bewildered. Why did Brökk seize her? Why does he want her for his wife? She weds him willingly enough when he threatens to kill her companions, but she vows to control her own destiny and escape. For if the Viking discovers her secrets, the laws of his people will force him to cast her aside…or kill her. And even Skatha, daughter of a goddess, might not escape the Viking’s wrath…


Chapter One

Brökk studied the assembled line of five females. “Which of you is the daughter of Kenneth, King of Scots?”

The women’s garments did naught to differentiate ’tween noble and servant, for they all wore the same shapeless, muddy habit. Each bore the wimple headdress, which made every woman’s face as dull as the gray skies and pissing rain that ran one day into another in the land of the Scots.

Brökk studied the silent women. He knew naught of the princess—how many summers she had seen, if her hair was shorn in the nun’s way, if she was small or large.

One woman, older and stouter than her companions, scowled in his direction. “I am the king’s daughter.”

He glanced at her hands. Calloused fingertips, chipped nails, and the scrapes on one knuckle bespoke menial labor. Fine lines creased the corners of her eyes, and her cheeks had the ruddy stain of one exposed to wind and sun. The woman was a servant and definitely not the get of King Cináed mac Maíl Coluim, nee King Kenneth of Scotland.

He fixed his stare on the four other females.

Storms had raged during the journey from Sumbarten Abbey to his holding, and neither he nor Konáll had been able to spare the time to question the women they’d taken from the holy place.

“Bring the priest.” Brökk addressed the order to his captain, Raki, who inclined his head and vanished through the open doorway.

Brökk pushed back his hand-carved chair, rose to his full height, slid his dagger from the leather sheath attached to his belt, and bounded off the dais. He landed not an arm’s distance from the older woman.

Four of the five females hastily stepped back. The fifth, the smallest of the group, shuffled into place beside the rest moments later. Brökk took one long stride, hooked the older woman’s neck with his elbow, and laid the tip of his blade to the pulse beating in the hollow of her thick throat.

“I ask the four of you for the last time. Which one of you is the daughter of King Cináed mac Maíl Coluim? Think you carefully on your answer, for I will punish mistruth by slitting your servant’s throat.” The woman smelled of lard, apples, and sour sweat. All the color drained from her plump cheeks.

The tallest female stepped forward, fingers twined, knuckles pale, the skin over them stretched taut. “I am Lady Skatha, daughter of Kenneth of Scotland.”

A muffled squeak drew his attention. The two other women each held a hand of the smallest female, the one who had not reacted immediately when he jumped from the dais.

“Cease.” The petite female shook off the other women’s grasp. “That is the Lady Gráinne, Abbess of Sumbarten Abbey. Forgive her deceit. She seeks only to protect me. I am Lady Skatha.” She lifted her chin, but averted her gaze. “The one you threaten is my nurse, Dagrún. She is but a simple woman whose birth is of no import. Pray, set your dagger to my throat, not hers.”

Brökk blinked. He had not expected such courage and plain speaking from one so small and timid in appearance.

She bowed her head and the hideous wimple fell forward, concealing her features. Clasping her hands loosely at her waist, she asked in a low, soft voice, “What want you of me, my lord?”

A smirk chased his lips, but he flattened them and pulled his brows together, giving her his berserker scowl. He chose words designed to discomfit her composure. “Why lady, you are to be my bride.”

She gasped and her jaw sagged for a moment, but with a toss of her wimple, she titled her head and said, “I am to belong to the church, my lord.”

He glimpsed her profile for a mere breath. She had not the lush beauty of his first wife, Etta, but none could label her unattractive.

“Nay. King Harald has ordered us wed. In the Christian way. I give you a choice, lady. Say the marriage vows, or watch your nurse and your companions die.”

She did not flinch as he expected. Nay, her nostrils flared, and rosy color stained the slash of chin not covered by her drab habit.

A commotion at the entrance to the longhouse drew Brökk’s gaze.

Raki shoved the priest through the doorway.

The corpulent monk tripped over his long, brown robe and bumped into the stone wall. Raki prodded him with the blade of his sword. “To the jarl, priest.”

“Lady, I will have your answer now.”

The nurse, Dagrún, trembled ’neath his grasp. She opened her mouth and Brökk placed his dagger’s blade to the nurse’s lip. Herfiligr Bita, Bitter Bite, known far and wide among the Jomsviking for the knife's ability to pierce the toughest hide as if ’twere the creamiest butter, shifted when the woman’s mouth quivered. Her lashes fluttered like a swallow’s wings. She swallowed, slid a sidelong glance at him, and nigh collapsed. Brökk smothered a curse and clamped an arm around her waist. “Do not act the fool. Lady Skatha will suffer for it.”

Her beady eyes widened, but she straightened and nodded.

Lady Skatha took one step forward. “First, I will have your word that no harm will come to Lady Gráinne, Muíríne, Elspeth, or Dagrún.”

Brökk was hard pressed not to react when the sun’s rays illuminated her face to reveal a square chin, ruby-red lips, a straight nose, skin the hue of rich cream, and twin splashes of color riding her high cheekbones. “You have my word, lady.”

Her features were set in lines of a fine temper—arresting violet eyes narrowed, dark brows pinched, mouth pursed. Mayhap she was indeed the daughter of the jötunn goddess, Skaði, for she showed nary a trace of fear. Though how a giantess could spawn such a sprite he knew not.

“You will free them once I have said the vows?”

“Nay, lady. ’Tis too late for the return journey to the Highlands. Your companions will spend the Winter-fylleþ at Bita Veðr and I will escort them back to Sumbarten Abbey in the spring. I give you my word on this. King Harald’s man, Olaf Longface, will also swear on it.”

She shuttered her remarkable violet eyes as her chest rose and fell in quick heaves. No whisper, no low mutter cracked the silent hall. The tension was palpable.

“I will wed you and trust in the Lord you will keep your word. Where or what is Bita Veðr?” Her voice had a musical quality akin to the low notes of a harp. “I understand not your explanation.”

So the Lady Skatha understood no Norse.

He had deliberately spoken to her in Gaelic and used the term the Christians used to describe the season of ice and snow. Then he had switched to Norse.

“Biting Wind. ’Tis the Norse name of this holding.” Brökk’s lips twitched when her eyes widened and the purple irises deepened into a startling shade akin to the deep dusk of a poppy flower. “Wed us, priest.”

Raki prodded the holy man forward. He tottered to a halt in front of Brökk and Lady Skatha. “M-my lord. The church decrees I speak with the lady in private—”

“’Tis not necessary,” she said. “I say the vows freely—”

“Nay, Lady Skatha, I heard the Viking—”

“Priest. Wed us. At once.” Brökk sheathed Bitter Bite, fixed a glare on the monk, and crossed his arms. He towered over the rotund holy man and had to clamp his teeth together to choke back the guffaw building in his belly. The man looked about to piss himself.

Brökk’s scarred face, immense size, and the thin war braids plaited at his temples cast horror into the souls of his foes and allies alike. His berserker battle skills were whispered about in all corners of the known world. Women and children feared him, other warriors sought to avoid him, and none dared risk his ire.

“’Tis customary to read banns, my lord.” The monk wrung his hands.

“Get on with it, priest.”

“My lady?” The priest’s fat jowls grayed.

“Read them now. Thrice.” Lady Skatha gathered her skirts and moved to stand beside Brökk. “Pray, make haste, Father. I fear the Viking grows impatient.”

Brökk snorted. The impertinence of the female, to speak of him as if he were not present. “You will address me as Jarl, or Lord Brökk, lady.”

“As you wish.” She folded her hands. The horrid headdress blocked most of her profile, and Brökk could not discern if the note of scorn in her voice was reflected in her expression.

The ceremony proved mercifully short.

When the vows were said and the priest had pronounced them man and wife, Brökk signaled Raki. “Escort my wife and her ladies to my lodge.”

He turned to his bride, ensnared her delicate hand, and brushed his lips over a shallow vein pulsing on the underside of her wrist. Her skin was like satin, supple as sweet cream, and a hint of lavender reached his nose. He detected not a tremble in her slender fingers. “I will come to you when the sun sets for the consummation, which will be witnessed by all present, including King Harald’s Lovsigemann.

To his surprise, she blinked not an eye. She showed no maiden’s terror, merely twisted her lips in a half sneer and queried him with a lifted brow. “Lovsigemann? I know not what this means.”

Aye, she had the bravery of a Jomsviking. Not a waver in her tinkling voice. He could not repress a twinge of admiration for one so slight of form who did not tremble before him. “King Harald’s law reader, Olaf Longface, who sits in judgment on all matters in this region.” She looked about to argue against the extra witness, so he added, “’Twould provide insult to the emperor, should the king’s lovsigemann not be included.”

Her plump lips thinned.

“My ladies and I have not broken our fast this day, my lord.”

She thought of food when faced with the loss of her maidenhood afore a room of witnesses? Bold, indeed.

“Fear not, my lady. I have no intention of denying you sustenance. Food will be sent to you. Now go and make yourself ready to receive your jarl.”

“As you wish.” She dipped a quick curtsey, her stare focused on the stone floor, before she spun about. The women surrounded her, and he traced their movements as Raki and a band of warriors led the females out of the longhouse.

She was not as he had expected. Defiant, unafraid, and resolute.

“’Tis done.” Konáll, his brother, slapped him on the shoulder. “You are wed.”

“Aye. And I find I have no liking for the all of it.”

“’Tis a conundrum indeed, our king’s command. What intrigue stands behind it we will not know until he is ready to divulge his plans. You could not do otherwise but wed her. Now you needs father an heir. Plow her. Let her breed you three or four sons.”

Brökk scraped his jaw. “’Twill take many horns of ale to fuel my lust.”

“Come. Order food, ale, and wine. We have time enough to get you sotted.”

The brothers walked to the high table. Already seated there was Olaf Longface. The fostered warriors who had the right of the dais hovered behind the burnished oak table. A few squires from nearby holdings surrounded the benches beneath the salt. Brökk spied Moldof, jarl of the holding on the other side of the fjord, engaged in conversation with the tavern keeper and his wife.

Brökk surveyed the longhouse. He had rebuilt the structure with the spoils gained while serving under Harald Bluetooth. ’Twas made of stone and marble carted from Miklagard, the great Eastern city ruled by the Emperor Ioannes Tzimiskes. Brökk and Konáll served both rulers, though they called Harald liege lord.

Watery sunlight seeped through the open windows. ’Twas as fine a day as could be had with the promise of Vetrnætr, the beginning of the winter nights, in the air. Not a cloud marred the blue sky, and the gentle balm of summer winds had long surrendered to the harsh wintriness of the snow falling on the mountain peaks.

“She is comely, your wife. I see no hint of Etta’s guile or spite.” Konáll stepped onto the dais.

“My first wife showed naught of her evil ways for many moons. We will see what happens with this one. I trust no female not of our lineage.” Brökk slumped into one of the two high-backed carved chairs on the platform.

“’Twas an unfortunate union, I am agreed, but do not let it sour you to all women.” Konáll sat and then signaled a kitchen boy for an ale horn.

“Believe you Lady Skatha is the daughter of Skaði? See you any goddess qualities in my new wife? She looks as frail as a birch twig, ready to snap in a strong wind. I see no evidence of the strength of a giantess. My wife is no descendant of a jötunn. I have been deceived.”

“Think you Harald Bluetooth plays you false?”

“Somewhat is amiss. I send word to Harold that I am taking King Kenneth’s bastard daughter to ransom for our sister and then he commands me to wed her? Why not allow me to travel to court to argue against such? How are we to free Hjørdis now?”



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