Talk about your midlife crisis. How was I supposed to know when I bought a pretty country church in a city named Rome that I was acting like a guardian deity? Lares Schmares. Anybody who deifies me needs serious therapy.
I went very still. Thirteen gongs? No. That wasn’t right.
Monty suddenly whipped around and ran back into the shadows. “Monty, come back here.” I hurried after him. The belfry was giving me the creeps and I’d decided I’d wait until morning to fix the bell. If I had to, I’d put earplugs in my ears to get through the rest of the night.
My little dog watched me approach with my light. He stood on his back legs, his front paws resting on the short belfry wall. Whining, he danced excitedly as I reached him, begging to be lifted.
“You can’t go up there,” I told him, eyeing the narrow ledge around the top of the short wall. Rising from the wall on all four sides were open archways so the bell’s music could travel across the countryside.
I looked out on the cemetery in the back, shivering at the sight of the fog roiling over the ground. It looked like a scene from a Halloween horror flick. Shivering violently, I pulled the robe closer as I stared out over the fog-shrouded tombstones.
The cemetery was old. Really old. With tombstones that were broken and falling over. The grass and weeds had grown up all around the stones, in some cases obscuring them entirely.
Maintenance on the little plot had been neglected for years. I was going to change that. The ground below me was sacred. The lives within it were important. Giving them back the resting spot they deserved was at the top of the list of things I planned to take care of as soon as I got settled.
In the distance, lightning spiked from the sky in a jagged spear of light and energy. A moment later, a soft boom told me thunder was hot on its heels. A cool breeze washed over me as Monty started to bark again.
Lightning stabbed downward again, significantly closer to my little piece of heaven. We needed to get out of there. “Come on, Monty. We’ll come back in the morning. With relief, I watched him bolt across the belfry and bound happily down the steps.
I started to follow him. But something caught my eye in the cemetery. I turned to look and felt a jolt of fear.
Someone was standing out there among the broken stones. I went very still, my eyes locked on the tall form. He…and I was pretty sure it was a man…stared back at me, though I couldn’t make out any features, just the gentle tilt of his head, but I could feel his gaze like a brand against my skin. With a sudden, inexplicable certainty, I knew he was looking directly at me.
We stared at each other for a beat as the fog swirled around his long legs, and then he slowly lifted a hand as if in a wave.
All the hair rose on my arms again.
The world exploded in light−detonated in a cacophonous boom. And the world turned charcoal gray beneath it.
“Say what?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear you right.”
Shane’s gaze landed on the two men standing before the hut. “You heard me right. The Brothers aren’t fond of travelers. Let’s just say they’ve been burned a time or two.”
“And yet this is where you brought us to spend the night?” Alina said. Despite her lowered brows, there was a suspicious twitch in her lips that made me think she was amused by our situation.
I wished I felt the same.
“I’ll agree it’s not perfect,” Shane said.
Hawk barked out a laugh. In a blink, several of the brothers had weapons in their hands.
We went very still, eyeing their weapons.
Alina’s slender fingers caressed the handles of her guns. “Blades made of stone. Interesting choice of weapon.”
“Don’t underestimate those blades,” Shane said, absently rubbing a shoulder. “They hone them until they’re impossibly sharp. And they can split a mosquito from forty yards with one of those things.”
“Let’s take a vote. Everybody who wants to move on,” I said, raising a hand.
Alina raised her hand too. When she saw Hawk hadn’t raised his, she lifted her other one. “I’m voting for two.”
I snorted out a laugh. A man stepped from the shadow of a smaller black hut. He held his blade low at his side, balanced between two fingertips. His expression didn’t show any emotion, but even from a distance of fifteen feet, I could tell he was tensed to throw the knife.
“Shane,” I murmured, pulling energy from the air. I gasped as the magic rushed to fill my core, thick and rich and vibrant with expectant power. I absorbed so much and so quickly that it shot to my hands, swirling in thick rust-colored clouds that filled the air around us with static electricity.
Every hair on my body stood at attention. Beside me, Alina sucked air and laughed with genuine humor. I turned to find her touching the ends of her hair that were floating around her head.
“What the…?” Shane rubbed the hair on his arms back into place, only to have it rise again.
I looked at Hawk. He looked back, his dark blond hair drifting around his face like an aura. He arched a single brow, making no attempt to tame his flyaway locks. That made me smile.
“I guess now we know why they all shave their heads,” Alina said.
“Um…look alive,” Shane mumbled, moving away from us and extending his hands as if preparing to fight.
That was when I realized every Brother in the camp was holding at least one blade. Several of them held a weapon in each hand.
And the air around us had become so saturated with magic it was almost impossible to draw breath.
We were going to die.
Belle’s door creaked as something shoved it open.
We didn’t dare turn to look at Nicht as he dropped lightly to the ground. A beat later, I heard him yawn, a long, theatrical affair that usually involved exposing a lot of big white teeth.
I risked a look and almost laughed. He looked like a giant black puffball. All of his fur stood at attention from the static.
Like a cold summer rain, the hellhound’s appearance doused the building hostility in the camp.
Blades slipped out of sight without any apparent movement. Backs went ramrod straight.
And before I knew what was happening, every single Brother had dropped to his knees and lowered his forehead to the ground.
We all looked at Shane. He shook his head. “I have no idea. But the dog seems to have caused a break in the hostilities, so I say we go for it.”
His comment was met with a low, extended growl, followed by another doggy yawn.
A portal protector and her baby gargoyle, a guardian daemon, a hellhound, and a witch. Together, they must survive in a strange land filled with unknown monsters. Combined they must be strong enough to defy an elite group of magical terrorists. They are Auctus, augmenting the magic flowing through her world…but will they be enough?
A Taste of Auctus…
The land that stretched out in front of me was a patchwork of different types of plants, all sown in perfect rectangular gardens with strange rock formations on every corner. In the farthest field, an enormous horse pulled a metal contraption through the gray soil. A tall man rode the back of it, standing on a small metal platform as the horse furrowed the fields.
I lay on my belly beneath the soft, overarching branches of a bush, a pair of special field glasses pressed to my eyes. With those glasses, I could see the small patch of white hairs on the horse’s back, probably regrowth after an old injury. I could also see the determined set of her taskmaster’s jaw and the hard glint in his pale eyes.
A bird trilled several yards from where I lay, and my gaze jerked in that direction. Tiny pieces of a nearby sandstone tree fluttered down around my head. I sneezed as the granular wisps of bark that gave the tree its name got sucked into my nostrils.
The man on the plow tensed and a hostile gaze slid unerringly in my direction. I hunkered down with a mumbled swear.
“Don’t swear, Glynnie,” said a soft, chastising voice. “It’th not nithe.”
Setting down the field glasses, I rolled onto my back and looked up at the baby gargoyle. “If somebody didn’t keep throwing bark dust at my face, I wouldn’t be worried about getting caught, and I wouldn’t accidentally say an admittedly unfriendly word.”
Boyle tsked me clumsily, his tongue not accustomed to the gymnastics needed for the sound. “Don’t make ’scuses for your bad behavior, Glynnie.”
I frowned, but there was nothing behind it. He was just too darn cute. Even if he was becoming a bossy boy since his Aunt Sissy had decided we were barbarians and started teaching us both manners. “We have to stay really quiet, baby boy. I told you that. If the man over there saw us spying on him…”
“He’d be really angry,” said a deep, rusty voice from a few feet away.
Boyle’s head shot up, his turquoise gaze went wide, and he covered his mouth with a long-fingered hand.
I rolled and leaped to my feet in a single move, the knife I kept in a sheath on my thigh hitting my palm before my mind even had time to register that I’d gone for it.
The man standing on the gray-green grass five feet away from me crossed tanned, muscular arms over his chest and lifted shaggy silver brows skyward. “First, you trespass on my land and now you’re going to stab me with a knife?”
I moved to stand between him and the baby, who was climbing down the tree with the ease of a monkey or a…well…a gargoyle. “When you put it that way,” I said. “It sounds unfriendly.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought his lips twitched slightly at that.
His gaze slid to Boyle as the baby clasped my hand in his warm grip. “Don’t be mean to Glynnie. She’s not treespassin’. She only mostly passed bushes ta come here. Not trees.”
I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling.
The man in front of me cleared his throat. He looked down at his muddy boots. “Well, if you’re sure she’s good people, I won’t yell.”
Boyle’s little face lit up in a smile. He bounced up and down, jerking me along with the energy of his jumps. “See Glynnie, he nice. We don’t have ta be quiet no more.” Boyle kept bouncing like he had an invisible jump rope, his energy off the charts from too many recent days stuck inside Victoria. Apparently, we’d landed in Outvald just before the rainy season. And, so far it had been a doozy.
The man’s eyes sparkled, his steel-gray eyes warming. “He sure is a springy little thing.”
I nodded, sliding the knife back into its sheath. “He’s been cooped up too much lately.”
The man looked out over his fields, grimacing. “It’s all I can do to plow this year. The mud’s just about to do old Bessie in.”
As if responding to his statement. The enormous horse blew through its nostrils and dipped its head. The short tail swished at a bug and her head whipped around, big teeth snapping at something that pestered her. I’d noticed the bugs in Outvald were downright scary. At least twice as big as anything I’d ever seen at home.
The man extended a work-roughened hand. He looked at it and grimaced, pulling it back. “Name’s Shane. You have to be Belle’s granddaughter, Glynn.”
Belle was a nickname Grams had used, a name from her past. “I am. How’d you guess?”
“She had long brown hair just the same color as yours, with the sun glinting copper off the strands. And you have her eyes. A brown as dark as night.” He tilted his head. “You’re taller than Belle though, what are you about five-ten?”
“Five eleven,” I told him, feeling self-conscious about my size. I wasn’t only taller than most women, but I wasn’t small-boned either. I was a big woman, not meaty, but strong. Not a woman who men felt like they had to tuck away and protect.
“Belle was a strong woman too. She always gave as good as she got.” He stared toward my land, his expression seeming to reflect good memories rather than bad.
Hearing him call Grams Belle was a little disconcerting. I knew Grams had been called different names by different people. She’d liked to compartmentalize the segments of her world. But to me, she’d always just been Grams.
Belle had been a special name. She’d told me a little bit about the time when she’d used it. And I’d seen the fond memories dance across her face as she had. It was a name from her youth. So, it made sense she would have gotten the name on Outvald. She’d spent her youth there. “I haven’t heard that name for a while,” I told him, laughing. “Except as it pertained to that stupid car.”
It was his turn to look surprised. “She still has that old Chevy? Goddess, that thing has to be as old as I am.”
“We still have it, yes.” I gave him a searching look. “You knew Grams passed, right?”
His gaze slid to the horizon toward Victoria, and sadness filled his expression. “I didn’t know for sure. But I thought she had.” He stared hard at the rolling hills and oddly shaped trees in the distance as if he could picture Victoria’s weathered peaks and chipped paint from there. “I’ll tell you a little secret, Glynn, your Grams was never far from Outvald, even when she went through the portal that last time.” He thumped his chest with his fist. “She stayed here. In the hearts of all the people she touched.” His eyes glistened and he blinked, looking away with embarrassment. Sniffing, he turned to Boyle with a forced smile. “And who is this handsome young man?”
“I’m Boyle,” the baby said proudly. He drew himself up to his full height of twenty-eight inches and a smidge, as Sissy liked to say to make him giggle.
“Boyle’s my son,” I told Shane. My gaze held his for a beat, looking for any kind of judgment that would make it impossible for us to be friends.
But he only inclined his head in a quick nod and crouched down to speak to Boyle. “I’ll bet you’ve never ridden a horse.”
Boyle’s eyes almost popped out of his head. He started bouncing again, his fingers clutching at my shirt as his eyes went wide. “Can I, Glynnie? Can I? Can I?”
I grabbed his hands to keep him from ripping my shirt and looked at Shane. “Are you sure it’ll be okay?” I nodded toward Bessie, who was contentedly ripping gray-green grass out of the ground with her powerful teeth.
“Absolutely. Old Bessie loves kids, don’t ya girl?”
The horse lifted her head and nickered softly, her ears twitching toward Boyle and then swiveling away, unconcerned.
“Then, I’m sure he’d love it. Thank you,” I told him warmly.
He held my gaze a beat and I saw the truth in his words when he said, “It’s my pleasure, Glynn. It truly is.”
What more could you possibly want in a Valentine's Story? heh
Hearts and Heresy
Never let it be said that I have a thing against heart-shaped stuff. Goddess knew I was currently surrounded by it.
Heart-shaped cutouts hung from nearly every surface above navel height throughout Croakies bookstore. Heart-shaped doilies dotted every flat surface.
Heart-shaped candies enclosed in heart-shaped tins and wrapped in heart-colored foil filled a heart-shaped wicker basket on the sales counter.
Heart-shaped cookies, sans frosting since I’d sworn off frosted cookies after our ill-fated Christmas fiasco, were displayed on a heart-shaped platter with a pink paper heart taped to it proclaiming, “Snarf to your heart’s desire!”
And, right at that moment, a heart-shaped face, peering at me with heart-felt emotion brimming in eyes that reflected a heartbreaking level of devastation from my lack of hearty despair for her heartfelt disappointment.
“But you advertised that ‘Hearts of Bomb’ would be available today,” The cupid’s bow lips said. The heartsick client shook her head, her stick-straight mop of Valentine-colored hair swinging back and forth to reflect her disgust. “You promised.”
I opened my mouth to tell Holly Heartsick that the shipment of books had been delayed, risking another accusation of bookseller heartlessness. Thankfully, the heart-rending announcement was waylaid by the arrival of my own personal Valerie Valentine.
Sebille’s naturally heart-colored hair was plaited into two waist-length braids on either side of her long, freckled face. She wore a matching red dress dotted with white hearts and pink and white striped socks that covered her knees beneath the calf-length dress. Her usual Wicked Witch of the West shoes were the perfect complement to the bad dress and ugly stockings.
By contrast, I wore a plain white shirt, worn blue jeans and white sneakers. My below-shoulder-length brown hair was straight and my dark blue eyes were wary. Valentine’s Day wasn’t my favorite holiday. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t seem to like any holidays. That wasn’t true. Exactly. I just haven’t found the one I like yet.
The sprite surged energetically into the bookstore, her sticklike arms wrapped around a plain brown box marked all over with heart-shaped stickers. “They’re here!” Her iridescent green eyes flashing, she grinned at my excited customer, who was currently hopping around and clapping her hands with wholehearted, heartfelt glee.
My shoulders slumped with relief. I grabbed a frosting-free sugar cookie, pink sparkles glittering from its pale surface, and jammed it into my mouth, wishing I had tea to go with it. Sebille settled the box on the table and opened it, pulling out a glossy paperback whose cover was a study in…you guessed it…pinks and red hearts.
Sebille plucked a copy of ‘Hearts of Bomb’ from the box and offered it to my merrily cackling client.
“Yay! I can’t believe it’s here,” Holly Heartface enthused as she did a little happy dance.
I rolled my eyes for two very good reasons.
Number one, though I loved books, and made half…okay a third…all right, a tenth…of my living with the sale of them, I couldn’t imagine becoming so enamored of one that my world literally ended if I couldn’t get my hands on it.
And two, unlike my heart-eyed customers, I knew the author of the book personally and was finding it exceedingly difficult picturing my Uncle Archibald Pudsnecker, a.k.a. Ben E. Nigma, as the type to write a cozy murder mystery with a cutesy name meant to bring to mind a stalky vegetable. Especially since the book that was currently all the rage with my customers was only his second. Pudsy’s first food cozy, “Banana Scream Pie”, had taken the mystery world by storm, selling out its first modest print run and earning two additional runs by the time the new book was released. This was no small feat for a guy whose previous works had included the riveting treatise, “Spatial Voids Around the World” and “The Argument For Embracing The Abyss”.
Sebille and her new best friend shoved me out of the way and I all but ran away from the counter, leaving them to it.
In a desperate move I knew I’d regret later, I shoved another cookie into my mouth. I was going to gain ten pounds before the current Valentine's Day book massacre ended.
“Thanks so much for coming!”
I jerked around at the pleasant, happy sound of Sebille’s voice and caught her waving gaily at her heart-faced bestie as the woman headed out of Croakies with a tin of candies in one hand and her new book in the other.
The door opened again and three women, all old enough to know better, bounced inside to the sound of the jangling doorbell. The oldest and tallest of the threesome set her bright, expectant gaze on me. “Please tell me you have Hearts of Bomb in the store?”
I swung an arm toward the box. “Just came in. Help yourselves.”
My dour mood didn’t seem to have any effect on their excitement. The gaggle of giggling women descended on the box like a school of piranha and extracted whole handfuls of the books.
Finally, my shopkeeper mojo kicked in. “Only one per person,” I told them. My Valentine’s Day crankiness earned me a trio of scowls, but I yanked the box off the table and held it out for them to replace their extras.
I’d like to say that I was trying to make sure every single one of Uncle Pudsy’s adoring fans got a copy of his latest book, but really, I just didn’t want to face another rabid reader with the bad news that we were out of stock. Again.
Sebille happily made the three sales, doling out candy tins with every purchase, and then sighed with unnatural contentment as the three women left in a dither of excitement. She turned to me and her smile wilted like raw spinach in a hot frying pan. “What’s wrong with you, Dour Dana?”
I started arranging the books atop the table in a happy display of pink and red hearts, my lips curling. “Not a thing, Valentina. Why are you so blasted happy?”
Sebille shrugged, her thin lips curving in an irrepressible smile. “Nothing. I just like Valentine’s Day.”
I looked agape at my usually morose and unhelpful assistant. “Why? You realize it’s a totally made-up holiday, right? It’s a retail holiday, created just for selling stuff.”
“Apparently you haven’t noticed this is a retail establishment?”
I slammed a paperback down on the table with excessive force.
Sebille came over, a half-eaten cookie in her hand and vanilla crumbs painting the corners of her lips. “Still no word from Grym, huh?”
I grimaced and didn’t respond. My fight with the prickly detective was not a subject I wanted to discuss.
Sebille nodded. “Okay, don’t tell me. I’ll just guess.”
Realizing that letting the sprite’s imagination run wild over the bumps in the road of my love life was a recipe for disaster, I sighed. “He’s about as malleable as a…” The thought slid away from my brain and turned to mist. I’d been having trouble holding a cogent thought all day. I blamed the copious amounts of sugar I’d eaten. I’d gorged on two heart-shaped jelly donuts for breakfast, a heart-shaped red velvet cupcake for lunch, two tins of heart-shaped candy, and three of the sugar cookies.
I was mood eating. And, I was in dire need of some of the stalky inspiration from Pudsy’s cozy. Or anything even remotely resembling a vegetable.
“As malleable as a boulder?” Sebille finished for me, snickering. “Granite?” Her snickers turned to guffaws. “A mountain?” She bent double, happy tears pouring from her iridescent green gaze.
I was not amused. “Gargoyle humor. Har,” I said, glaring.
The dividing door opened between the bookstore and the artifact library at the back of the store. A blur of pale pink and white shot into the store and skidded to a stop right in front of me. For a blip, the air around the creature looking up at me with oversized blue eyes was striped with cartoon-like contrails from his superfast arrival. Then the glowy lines on the air sifted away into nothingness.
I narrowed my gaze on Hobs, my resident hobgoblin. “Are you wearing a diaper?”
He laughed, happily bouncing on his oversized toes. “Miss Sebille made it for me. Do you like it?”
My still-narrowed gaze slid to the matching, heart-shaped spots of pale red highlighting his cheeks and then to the tiny bow in his hand. “Please tell me you’re not supposed to be playing Cupid?”
Hobs cocked his head, looking confused. “I’m not supposed to be playing Cupid?” His high-pitched voice was filled with a question.
I sighed and threw a glower Sebille’s way.
“What?” she objected. “Customers will love him.”
My eyes went wide. “We can’t…”
The dividing door slammed back on its hinges and Mr. Wicked skulked through, his dark orange gaze wide as he hit my calf with a manic, “Yeow!”
“Hey, buddy,” I said, bending to scoop him into my arms. I buried my face in his fur and sucked a snout full of something small and irritating.
Sneezing violently several times, I nearly dropped my cat. I sniffled, glancing at my hands. They sparkled. “What is in your fur?” I asked him.
Wicked swished his tail. Hard. A tiny growl slid from his throat.
He was all sparkly. Pink sparkly! “Sebille!”
She rolled her eyes. “Uncoil your granny panties,” she said. “He’s fine.”
I sneezed again, placing him on the floor. “You’re killing me with this Valentine’s stuff. What other surprises do you have for me?”
She flipped a dismissive hand. “I’ll make tea. Maybe that will calm you down.”
I looked down at the fat, green squish on the floor by my feet.
He blinked up at me, his eyes blank pools of black, like miniature Pudsy voids.
Horror slid up my spine. “What…?”
Get it off me! screamed the irate frog in my mind. Now!
Enormous pink lips protruded from the frog’s sparkly green face. “Oh, Slimy,” I said in a commiserating tone. “I can’t believe she did this to you.” I crouched down and tugged at the lips, expecting them to be made of paper or wax. Instead, realistic-feeling flesh, plumped and puckered, resisted my tugging. I jerked my hand away, straightening on a squeal. “They’re real!” I rounded on the Sprite, who quickly turned away from me when I tried to catch her eye. “I can’t believe you gave him puckery lips! Have you lost your mind?”
She hid a grin behind her hand. “Don’t you get the joke? Kiss the frog, get a prince? Come on,” she said as steam wafted from my ears. “Customers are going to love it.”
“Ribbit!” Slimy proclaimed indignantly.
I pointed a shaky finger toward the quivering frog. “Fix. Him.”
Sebille gave me a long-suffering sigh and threw a pale green jet of magic toward the frog. The big, puckery lips disappeared with a pop.
Slimy gave the sprite one last indignant, “Ribbit!” and then hopped underneath the nearest bookshelf to work on regaining his self-respect.
“You’ve lost your mind, sprite,” I told her, madder than I’d ever been. Well…in the last week anyway. “What’s going on with you?”
Amazingly, she gave me a secret smile and headed for the door. “I’m taking my break.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “What? You can’t take a break. You just got here.”
She shrugged and slipped through the door, leaving me with one delighted Cupid who I couldn’t let anybody see, a traumatized frog, and a seriously annoyed cat.
I sagged. Could the day get any worse?
Proving that it could, the front door bell jangled and I steeled myself for more shrieking Ben E. Nigma fans. Instead, I found myself looking into a handsome, craggy face and an intense dark caramel gaze. “Oh,” I said, my wit firmly intact.
“Hello, Naida,” said Detective Wise Grym, a.k.a. my maybe-boyfriend.
It's an age-old battle–country folk vs city folk–verdant hillside vs concrete jungle–Pickup vs Prius. City folk think all country folk are simple-minded bumpkins. Country folk believe all city folk are rats living in a maze. But some things transcend culture. Some things spoil any lifestyle.
Murder is one of those things…
Hal’s younger brother has been banished to Deer Hollow because of his proclivity for getting into trouble. Hal’s parents are hoping he’ll take the kid under his wing and straighten him out. But Asher Amity has a knack for finding trouble, and it doesn’t take him long to find it in Deer Hollow. When Asher steps into a steaming pile of murder and treachery, Hal and Joey are destined to get dragged into the mess with him. Who knew how dangerous babysitting could be?
The sun was high and bright and the day had turned hot. I left Caphy to run free, the leash dragging the ground in case I needed to catch her.
She and her snotty sister explored every tree we passed, teasing the squirrels that chittered angrily from the highest branches.
Unbeknownst to the chirping rodents, LaLee could actually climb the trees if she wanted to. She’d nearly caught one of the squirrels who’d been taunting the pitty from the distant heights of a particularly impressive walnut tree.
Even worse, the cat ignored my shrieking for her to leave the hapless creature alone as only a cat could. After a suitable period of time had passed to prove she was doing it on her own terms, LaLee finally descended the tree, sailing gracefully from branch to branch until she landed lightly in the dirt.
Felines. You couldn’t live with them, and you couldn’t return them for a refund.
I settled into the walk, blissfully inhaling the sweet, hot air and enjoying the pleasant trills and flutterings of a multitude of birds.
The trees provided enough shade to make the heat bearable, but adequate sun to keep the Grimm’s fairytale feeling at bay.
We followed familiar paths that wound up familiar hills and into familiar ravines. After an hour of exploring, the distant sound of the river told me we’d probably better turn back, or I was going to lose one of my frisky companions to the enticement of a cool swim.
The currents in that part of the river were treacherous, and I’d always made it a point to keep Caphy away from it. She got into enough trouble in the pond in front of my house.
As if I’d conjured her from my thoughts, Caphy started barking from somewhere over the next hill. LaLee had been sharpening her claws on the rough bark of a walnut tree, but her head came up and the lazy waving of her long tail took on a more energetic tone.
The first tendrils of unease tightened my chest.
“Caphy girl, come!”
Caphy continued to bark, the sound growing increasingly strident.
I hurried toward the hill. “Caphy! Come!”
The pitty usually listened to my “mean voice”. Unless there was something more interesting to keep her attention.
LaLee sprinted along beside me as I started to run. The hill was one of the larger ones in the woods. When I’d topped the incline, I found myself standing on the edge of a ravine, the sides steep and treacherous. I all but slid down the first side and then had to scramble and grasp at roots and saplings to make it up the opposite slope.
My voice was breathless when I called Caphy again. “Caphy, girl. Come!”
Somewhere around the middle of the upward slope, the pibl had gone quiet. Already at the top of the hill, LaLee yowled unhappily and hissed.
Icy fear made me quicken my steps. What if Caphy had run into a coyote? The thought was terrifying. I’d heard too many stories of pets being lured away by seemingly playful coyotes, only to be attacked in numbers once they’d gotten them alone.
“Caphy!” My voice took on a strident shriek as panic took me completely over.
LaLee suddenly shot away on an angry yowl, and I nearly choked to death trying to find the air to scream as I scrabbled for purchase on the slippery ravine wall. “LaLee, no! Caphy!”
I shoved myself the last couple of feet, my heart pounding like a piledriver and my hands bloodied from the fight to climb.
My frantic gaze slipped over the woods that was laid out in front of me. I spotted a low form shooting through the trees, agile and fast.
I cried out, an unformed sound built of pure fear. Had that been a coyote? No…please no.
I started to run, my eyes on the fast-moving form gliding too quickly away from me.
LaLee disappeared into the obscuring branches of a huge evergreen ahead of me. I stepped up my speed, catching my foot in a root and slamming to the ground with a surprised cry.
Ignoring the pain in my knees and palms, I shoved back to my feet and started forward.
Something moved to my right and, before I could see what it was, pain exploded on the side of my head. And the ground roared up to smack me.
How in the name of the goddess’s favorite sports bra am I going to do this Magical Librarian job? I have no idea what I’m doing. And the woman who’s supposed to be training me is…well, let’s just say she’s distracted and leave it at that. I guess I’ll bumble through. It’s become something of a trademark move for me.
My name is Naida Griffith and I’m a sorceress. I actually found that out not too long ago. I’ve lived with an undefined something burning in my belly for a while, feeling as if something wasn’t quite right under my skin. Then, on my eighteenth birthday I started getting headaches. Bad ones. And random stuff started following me around.
Recently I was approached by a group called the Société of Dire Magic to become Keeper of the Artifacts. A magical librarian. Given that magical artifacts have taken to following me around, I decided I might have an aptitude for the job. So I said yes.
But in the first few days, I’ve been flogged by flip flops, bludgeoned by gnomes, and discovered a corpse in a suitcase. Then there’s the woman who’s supposed to be training me. She’s…interesting.
Will I survive the training long enough to get the job as artifact librarian? You might as well ask me if a caterpillar gets manis or pedis. Who knows? But I know one thing for sure. This gig is hard. I’m going to do my best to succeed. Or die trying.
I was chatting with a new reader recently about why we love books and reading. She stated, and I agreed, that it was a way to escape real life. That's never been more true than it is right now. So, how do we deal with life's little challenges when times get tough?
We all have coping mechanisms that we fall back on in times of upheaval. For me, it's being around my family, reading, and writing. Many authors have lamented their inability to write over the last few months. When you're in a creative field, negativity and stress are not your friends. That's true, of course for everyone. But, for artists, it actually gets in the way of our productivity.
What I realized recently is that without making a conscious decision to do so, I've shifted my reading and writing focus to paranormal mystery adventures. It didn't even occur to me when I was doing it that it was my way of coping. But what could be less like real life than a good, swashbuckling paranormal adventure? #:0)
Moral of the story? If you're having trouble concentrating on your usual fictional fare, you might want to try mixing it up a bit. Try a genre you haven't read for a while. Or one you've never tried. You never know…it might just be what you need right now.
The best chocolate begins with imagination and ends in murder.
Making chocolate is a labor of love and an age-old art. As a connoisseur of the sweet, creamy stuff herself, Blaise is excited to be working at an exclusive confectioner’s shop, run by a woman whose reputation for being a creative chocolatier is legendary. Madeline Foss’s past might be murky and slightly dark, but her chocolate is delicious. And nothing says love like chocolate. Or at least, that’s what Blaise has always believed.
But when her new boss ends up dead, she quickly realizes that nothing says murder like jealousy and ambition. And there isn’t enough chocolate in the world to overcome a savage intent.
She floated into the room in a cloud of raspberry and chocolate chiffon, her arms waving around her head and her eyes swiveling to take in every display with a slightly hostile, but eminently discerning eye. “Les grains de café enrobés de chocolat!”
Blaise settled the last perfectly formed rectangle of toffee onto its tray in the glass case and glanced up. “I’ve got them ready to put out. I’ll do those next.”
Madeline Foss nodded and stopped in the middle of the cozy little shop, an index finger pressed against her ruby-red lips as her cool, gray gaze swept the tables and danced over the glass display cases. “The brittle is messy,” she told Blaise.
“I know. I’ll do that after the chocolate covered coffee beans.”
“Les grains de café enrobés de chocolat,” Madeline corrected, her upturned nose lifting with disdain.
“The grains de whatever, yes.” Head down so her boss couldn’t see when she rolled her eyes, Blaise closed the case and moved over to the tray of pretty plastic containers filled with coffee beans coated in creamy, rich chocolate. She fought the urge to inhale their scent, knowing that Madeline, in her Queen of England persona, would consider it gauche.
Madeline’s cell rang and she tugged it from an invisible pocket in the cloud of chiffon, glaring at the screen. “I’ll be in my office, Blaise.” She turned and swept toward the back of the shop, her outfit billowing around her like a designer flag in a windstorm.
“Yes?” Her voice was tight and shrill. It was her “I don’t like you, so why are you talking to me” voice.
Blaise shook her head. She’d taken the job as an experiment, thinking she might like to get into the confectionary business. She’d learned a lot and enjoyed creating the sweet delicacies as much as watching people’s eyes light up when they came through the door and looked around. But dealing with the talented yet decidedly temperamental Madeline had been a bit more than Blaise had bargained for.
Still, she’d been surprised to discover she really liked her new boss. Once she’d realized there was a soft center under all that prickliness.
Her own cell rang a couple of moments later as the back door snicked closed, sending a cold draft of early Winter air in Blaise’s direction. Blaise frowned toward the hallway that led to Madeline’s office, the private restroom, and the exit.
Had her boss left for the day without saying anything?
Irritation flaring, Blaise answered her phone without looking to see who it was. “Hello?”
A shrill bark met her greeting. Her temper sifted away and Blaise grinned. “Hey, Miss Ivy. How’s my beautiful girl?”
Panting noises preceded a soft whine, and Blaise chuckled. “Dolfe, how many times have I told you not to whine on the phone.”
“It works for the fur-brats,” a sexy, deep voice told her.
“That’s because they’re little and cute.”
“I’m not cute?” His voice filled with pretend hurt.
“Cute is not the word I’d use for you, no.” Gorgeous. Sexy. Painfully masculine. She grinned.
His chuckle made her all warm and sizzly inside. “What time will you be done tonight? The brats and I want to go to that new drive-in restaurant for dinner.”
“The brats told you that, huh?”
“They did. I happen to speak fluent fur-brat.”
Laughing, she glanced through the front windows at the lead-gray sky beyond. “It’s cold and ugly outside, Honeybun.”
“We won’t be getting out of the car.” She could almost hear him smile. “Besides, I’ll keep you warm.”
“More like the two dogs on my lap will keep me warm. You won’t be able to reach me through all the fur and teeth.”
Dolfe sighed. “Story of my life. Time?”
“Five o’clock. I’m almost done setting up for tomorrow.”
“Perfect. We’ll see you then.”
A short, muffled scream had Blaise turning toward the back again. “What the…?” She disconnected and started toward the office. “Madeline?”
The hall was empty. The office door was locked. Madeline kept it locked whenever she left the room. Blaise’s boss wasn’t a very trusting person and the office’s proximity to the back exit, which led to an alley featuring a stinky dumpster, a few employee cars, and zero security cameras didn’t improve her trust issues.
Blaise tugged the bathroom door open and stuck her head inside. “Madeline?”
A cold breeze skimmed down the hall and the metal door to the alley clacked against the frame. It wasn’t latched.
It was unlike her boss to leave it open. Unless she’d been in a hurry. Or upset.
Frowning, Blaise hurried toward the door and eased it open, peering into the alley as an icy blast of wind scoured across the space, sending bits of debris skimming over the dingy asphalt and carrying the stench of the dumpster down the way to her nose.
Her boss’s car was still there, sitting alone under the security light that hadn’t come on yet.
“Madeline…?” Blaise’s voice cut off as she spotted a length of raspberry chiffon dancing on the air near the dumpster. Shivering violently, Blaise stepped into the alley. “What are you doing out here? You’re going to get frostbite.” She headed for the cloud of chiffon, rubbing her arms and looking around for any indication of why Madeline had come into the alley.
“You know, I took the trash out earlier, right?”
A pale hand lifted above the dumpster and Blaise gave a startled yelp as a rangy orange cat jumped from the rusty container and dropped lightly to the ground. The cat turned to stare at her, its startling green gaze filled with distrust. The stray’s tail whipped from side to side and Blaise took note of the dark stains around its mouth. She grimaced. “Dumpster diving, huh?”
Madeline must have been trying to capture the cat. The woman was cat crazy. She had six cats of her own, all rescued off the streets of Indianapolis. Blaise frowned as the cat ran away, her gaze drawn to the pale hand resting against the side of the dumpster. “Please tell me you didn’t fall into that dumpster trying to help the cat?”
She stepped on something that crunched under her boot. Looking down, Blaise frowned at the familiar phone, its back encased in faux purple jewels. She picked it up and grimaced at the cracked screen. “Um, Madeline…I think I broke your phone.”
Silence met her statement. “Madeline?”
Blaise hurried over, jerking to a stop as she got close enough to see inside the trash receptacle.
Blaise gave a sharp scream, her hand snapping up to cover her mouth.
“Oh, Maddie…” Tears burned her eyes and slid down her cheeks, dripping to the stained and debris-strewn asphalt beneath her boots.