First Chapter Fridays–a touch late

This is the first chapter from an amazing Ariel Atwell book. Check it out:
Chapter One
“If women governed the world, ‘la relations sexuelles’ would no longer be forbidden or scandalous. Men are so vehemently against the thing they love so well for fear of giving too much liberty to the women who might otherwise challenge them.”
—Twenty-One Lessons from the School of Aphrodite by Madame X
Translated from the French Vingt et Un Leçons de l’École d’Aphrodite.
Published in London, England, in 1792 by Anonymous.

February 28, 1831
Penelope Cavanaugh, Marchioness of Huntley, had heard it said more than once that William Lindsay, Viscount Weymouth, was not the sort of man a respectable woman should ever consider marrying.
“He is handsome. I will grant you that,” the Duchess of Haverhill had observed years ago as they’d watched Weymouth flirting and charming his way through a bevy of ladies at a grand ball hosted by Lord and Lady Francis, his dark-brown hair gleaming in the illumination provided by more than five hundred candles.
“And he is reputed to be quite the swordsman, if you know what I mean.” Penelope had known what the duchess meant and blushed accordingly. “But the lad has a reckless streak a mile wide and will come to no good, mark my words.”
Penelope had nodded dutifully as the duchess continued. “If you are foolish enough to marry a scoundrel like Weymouth, he will fritter away all your money on horses and drink and gambling, and then where will you be? Much better to have an affaire de cœur with men like that. After you have given your husband an heir, of course.”
Penelope had been pregnant with the third of her six children at the time, all of whom would turn out to be girls, and thus disqualified as heirs, and so had never had an opportunity to test the duchess’s theory. Not that she would have anyway, as she had been devoted to her late husband, Henry Cavanaugh, the sixth Marquess of Huntley.
But on this chilly February day, as she observed Viscount Weymouth walking—staggering, really—toward her in the early morning mist, she realized the late duchess had known what she was talking about.
Weymouth was as drunk as a wheelbarrow, his bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait serving as the two primary giveaways, the pungent smell of spirits on his breath providing further confirmation as he drew closer to where she stood on the bottom step of the stone staircase leading up to Huntley House.
“Why, Lady Huntley,” he drawled, a noticeable slur in his voice. “Fancy finding you on the streets of London at this late hour.”
“Hardly the streets, Lord Weymouth,” she said, tipping up her head to look at him, for even when she stood on the stairs, he was at least three quarters of a foot taller than she. “And the hour is more early than late. Are you typically foxed at this time of the day, or is this a special occasion?”
“Paragons of virtue such as yourself would say it is early, I suppose.” He leaned against the iron stair rail and squinted at the rays of sun just beginning to kiss London’s rooftops. “Individuals with more open minds and forgiving spirits might regard it as very late. It all depends on your perspective.”
“I cannot speak for others, but here at Huntley House we are steadfast in our belief that eight o’clock is morning, probably because it is an hour when many of us are rising from our beds.” She gave him a critical glance. “Bed being a place where you have yet to find yourself from the looks of it.”
Now that he was standing close, she could see he was not only intoxicated, but also worse for wear. He wore no overcoat despite the chill in the air, and the blue velvet jacket that stretched over his broad shoulders had seen better days. If he’d been wearing a cravat, it was not in evidence as his white shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, providing a glimpse of dark chest hair. His leather boots were a total disgrace, scuffed and splattered with mud. A gentle breeze was riffling through the curling locks of hair that framed his face, while a layer of stubble covered the pale skin of his jaw. Fatigue was etched into circles beneath sapphire eyes. He was beautiful nonetheless, the very picture of what she imagined a fallen angel might look like. Although there was no indication that William Lindsay had ever been anything even close to angelic.
“My goodness, when was the last time you slept, Weymouth? Or spent time with your valet?”
“Those are rather personal questions, don’t you think, Lady Huntley?” he replied affably. “Now where is my sister Catherine? I have come to see her on her birthday.”
“Catherine and James departed for Everton with the children three days ago. And her birthday was last week, so you are late.”
“That is inconsiderate of her, considering the lovely tribute I have brought.” He held up a small bouquet of flowers for Penelope’s inspection. It was a haphazard collection of asters, periwinkles, and daisies of various sizes and shapes, some missing their blossoms, others lacking their leaves or suffering from stems that were bent or broken. In short, not the sort of bouquet anyone over the age of seven would have ever dreamed of bringing to the current Marchioness of Huntley for her birthday. But then it was well understood that Weymouth’s chronological age had long since diverged from his maturity level.
“I know what you are thinking,” he declared with a drunkard’s slurred conviction. His stance was now so unsteady that if he had not been holding on to the rail, she feared he would have tumbled over into the hedges.
“Oh, I sincerely doubt that. It might be best if you came inside the house.”
“Why, Lady Huntley, what did you have in mind?” he asked, a suggestive note in his voice. “I am a bit in my cups as you may have noticed, but give me a few minutes, and I might be able to come up to snuff.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know it will be difficult, Weymouth, but try not to behave like a complete arse,” she said crisply.
A grin spread across his face, softening his haggard features. “Did you just call me an arse?”
“I feel bloody well certain that I did not,” she replied primly.
“Will wonders never cease? Lady Perfect has a gutter mouth.” He gave her a considering look. “Do your children know their mother curses?”
“My children would be the reason I curse. If I cursed.” She gave him her most beneficent smile. “Which I do not.”
“Yes, I imagine they would. You have, what, a dozen or so brats by now?”
“A mere half dozen. Do you intend to stand out here in the cold, or will you come inside for breakfast? Cook doesn’t seem to realize that most of the household has gone away to the country, and it would be a shame for so much delicious food to go to waste.”
“As much as your kind offer warms the cockles of my heart, I fear I must be going.” He tried to bow and would have fallen over had she not grabbed his arm.
She sighed. It was tempting to allow him to go on his merry way, but anything might happen to him in this sorry state. He was family, after all, albeit by marriage.
“I think you are coming inside,” Penelope said, tugging his arm and pulling him up the stairs toward the front door. She expected him to protest, but he proved unexpectedly compliant, following her almost obediently in the house and into the warmth of the library, where a fire had been lit.
“Now try and behave while I go to see if breakfast is ready,” she ordered sternly. Weymouth nodded, and she strode down the hallway to find the butler, with whom she placed an order for porridge, eggs, kidneys, sausage, and toast.
She was gone only a few minutes, but that wasn’t fast enough. Returning to the library, she found him dead asleep, his long legs stretching almost the length of the leather sofa where he was sprawled. With help from the footman, Weymouth’s boots were removed, and he was covered with a blanket. He did not stir, so sound was his slumber.
The servant departed the room, leaving Penelope to stare pensively at the viscount. He was tall, his body lean but muscular, with no sign of a drunkard’s paunch despite a life largely spent in idleness and debauchery. When sleeping, he appeared much younger and more vulnerable, and she could easily picture the boy he had once been.
A dark lock of hair had fallen against his forehead, and Penelope felt something inside her stir at the sight of him lying there, looking so vulnerable. Without thinking, she leaned over to push the hair back off his face, stopping herself only at the last moment. He was not a boy, but a grown man, and she had no business touching him, no business at all. She forced herself to step back out of temptation’s way.
The duchess had been right. As he had demonstrated this very morning, Viscount Weymouth was not the sort of man a respectable woman should ever consider marrying. As for what else the duchess had believed him to be good for—well, that was something she simply wasn’t going to contemplate.

Morning, April 3, 1831
It was the incessant pounding that finally awakened him. At first, he had thought it was only the throbbing in his head. But when it did not stop, he realized someone was seeking entrance to his bedchamber.
Bang, bang, bang.
Quite insistently at that. He opened his eyes and closed them just as quickly, the pain vibrating with sharp ferocity from his scalp down through his eyeballs. He had not reached his bed until dawn, and his throat and mouth were both damnably dry, as if the whiskey bottle had sucked all the spit out of him.
He shifted and became aware that he was still fully dressed—never a good sign—and that he was not sleeping in his bed, but lying on something far less comfortable. Something downright uncomfortable in fact.
Where was he, then? Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and winced as memories far more painful than any hangover came flooding back. Weymouth House emptied almost entirely by creditors. The house and land at Rossendale Hills near foreclosure. The people who were counting on him. His solicitor’s ominous words ringing in his head like the voice of doom.
“You must sign over the estate, my lord, or you will be sent to Marshalsea prison until the debts are settled.”
The debts would never be settled, for there was no money with which to settle them, and as the bitter taste of his failure swept over him, he closed his eyes in search of sleep’s sweet oblivion. But it was not to be, at least not this morning.
Bang, bang, bang. Whoever was knocking upon his door seemed determined to deprive him of even the comfort of his slumbers.
“Haven’t you vultures already picked my bones clean?” he growled, his breath visible in the cold air, for the small fire in the hearth had long since burned out.
Bang, bang, bang.
Pulling himself to a sitting position, he then swung his legs over the side of the narrow couch where he had been sleeping. The motion was almost more than his throbbing head could endure, and dizziness passed over him in waves.
“Steady now, old man,” he muttered, forcing himself to rise. “One step in front of the other.” He made his way across the vast sitting room, now empty of the fine furnishings and paintings that had decorated the space for his entire life, and out into the once grand hallway before at last reaching the massive front door. Feeling as if he had traversed the Sahara Desert, he unfastened the latch and pulled open the door. Standing on his doorstep was a well-appointed gentleman dressed in a dark overcoat and beaver hat, a gloved fist raised apparently in preparation for another cruel round of knocking.
“For the love of God, stop that infernal racket, for I am trying to sleep,” William snarled.
“My apologies for disturbing you, sir.” Through William’s bleary eyes, the man did not appear to be the least bit sorry. “I am seeking Viscount Weymouth.”
“Sadly for me, you have found him.” William pinched the bridge of his nose, desperately seeking some relief from the stabbing pain in his skull.
“Good morning, sir,” said the man with a respectful bow. “Laurence Heath at your service. I am here to discuss a matter that I believe will be of great interest to you.”
“If you are a bill collector, you have come too late, for anything of value is long gone. Now go away and leave me in peace.” William moved to shut the door in the man’s face, but a well-polished boot placed in the doorway frustrated his attempts.
“Quite the other way around, sir. I am a solicitor,” the older man said earnestly. He looked around the street meaningfully. “Might we talk in a more private setting?”
“I doubt there is anyone within earshot who will give a tinker’s damn about whatever it is you have to say,” William said wearily.
The solicitor gave him a beseeching look. “This is a matter of great…delicacy, sir. It really would be best if we went inside.”
It seemed the man was not going to give up without gaining a private audience. “Come in if you must,” William said, ushering Laurence Heath through the door with a grand sweep of his hand as if he were welcoming him into St. James’s Palace instead of a mansion that had been stripped of nearly every comfort and ornament by his creditors. He saw the place the way Heath must be seeing it, the once grand room now containing only a few scattered pieces of furniture, including the settee where he had passed a most uncomfortable night. It was better than sleeping on the floor, but only just.
“Do not keep me waiting, man, for I have a busy day of social engagements ahead of me,” William quipped.
Heath responded with a pained smile. “This will not take long, sir.” The solicitor removed his hat to reveal a mane of silver hair held back in a black ribbon. From his coat pocket, he withdrew a rolled sheet of vellum and handed it to William. “As I said, I do believe you may find this to be of interest.”
William unfurled the sheet and began to read. “In exchange for services, a sum of…shall be paid to Viscount Weymouth…agreement to commence…and continue until…both parties agree to keep the terms entirely confidential.” William looked up. “Is this some sort of jest?”
“Not at all. It is a legitimate offer from a benefactor who wishes to provide you with the opportunity to, shall we say, recover from your current financial difficulties,” Heath replied.
“Who is this benefactor?” William demanded, feeling his temper rise. “If it is Huntley, you will see me dead before I will be found hanging on his sleeve.”
“If you are referring to your brother-in-law, the Marquess of Huntley, rest assured that neither he nor your sister, Lady Huntley, are involved in any way,” said Heath, his firm manner convincing William that he was not dissembling.
William scanned the document again, searching for clues to the mystery unexpectedly confronting him. “Who is it, then? And what sort of service am I expected to provide?”
“I could not say, sir.” Heath’s expression was inscrutable. “That would be a private matter between you and the other party.”
William gave a snort of disgust and flung the document back at Heath. “Times are difficult, but I am not so loose in the haft to sell myself to some old man—” he began, but the solicitor interrupted him.
“Not a man, my lord, but a woman. A lady,” said Heath, carefully rolling up the contract and setting it down on the room’s one remaining table. “Quite a fine lady, in fact.”
“A lady?” William was momentary flummoxed by that. “Which lady?”
“I am not at liberty to reveal her identity,” Heath said. His tone was almost prim, and William gained the distinct sense that the solicitor did not approve of the mystery lady’s proposal—whatever it might be.
William swiped an impatient hand across his brow to keep the hair out of his eyes. He desperately needed to get it cut, but his valet had resigned two months ago to take a job “where the gentleman can pay me, sir.” He couldn’t blame the man, but it had been damned inconvenient to be left without anyone to assist him with his toilet. “Will I be expected to commit a crime? Knock off an inconvenient husband, or have a go at stealing the crown jewels?”
The solicitor compressed his lips into a terse line. “You will not be asked to do anything of a criminal nature. Beyond that, I cannot be more informative, as the lady herself wishes to explain the particulars. I will leave the contract here for your consideration. If you are interested in pursuing this opportunity, you need only contact me, and I will arrange a meeting between you and the lady in question. But do not tarry long, as an answer is required by the end of the week.”
William did some rapid calculations in his head. The funds on offer were damned tempting. Enough to pay off his largest creditors and get his estate back on its feet. For the first time in months—nay, years—he felt a faint spark of hope.
“That’s a fair amount of blunt—enough to stake me for at least a month or two of faro,” William said carelessly and was rewarded with the solicitor’s look of dismay.
“It is none of my business, sir, but you might be wise to consider putting aside some of the funds so that you can assure the future of your patrimony.”
William gave the solicitor a haughty look. “You’d be wise to refrain from giving unsolicited advice to your betters, Heath,” he said coldly, sounding a right jackass, even to his own ears. From the pained look on Heath’s face, the man obviously thought William a pompous fool.
But the solicitor was far too circumspect to betray his personal thoughts. “My apologies, sir,” he said, handing William a card. “Send word to me at this address when you have made your decision.”
William pictured the families who would lose their homes when Rossendale was divided and sold off. Was there anything that this lady could want from him, short of murder, which he was not prepared to do?
Unbidden, he heard his dead father’s voice whispering to him.
What sort of man sells himself for money? Are you a tradesman now? Where is your pride, boy?
Go back to hell where you belong, you old bastard.
“I will meet with this mysterious lady,” William said to the solicitor. “But it must be today, for I am expected at Crockford’s at midnight and will want the cash in hand by then.”
Heath nodded, looking not at all surprised. Maybe the man made these sorts of arrangements all the time. “I shall let her know to expect you.”

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Kate Steele’s Latest Book: Gimme Shelter

This book is about two extremely hot guys. Oo-la-la! Here’s her first chapter, just to give you a sample:

Gimme Shelter
Chapter One

Check out the hottest guys in the hottest romance I’ve seen this month!

Gimme SHelter
Chapter One

Proximity sensors blared and red warning lights flashed madly, disrupting the everyday routine on the bridge of the starship Brizo. Captain Zen Ahbramez looked up from the comm screen he’d been perusing. “Report, Mengs.”
Already in action, his Gulrian navigator’s long, agile fingers flew over the command keys at his station. “There’s a slow moving ship crossing our projected course. Unless we change speed or course we’re going to collide.”
Familiar tension readied Zen’s mind and body for action. He took a deep breath of recycled air. The customary hints of metal and machinery registered against his sensitive palate, a barely there but recognizable taste. “Distance?” he asked, redirecting his gaze to the forward view screen.
“Half a parsec, more or less.”
“As usual, Mengs, your pinpoint accuracy is underwhelming.”
The intricately carved wood beads in Mengs’ short braids clacked as his chair swiveled. He fixed his orange-eyed gaze on the captain. “Yeah well, you get the good stuff when it counts. You know me, I don’t like to show off, and it’s not like you have to make an instant decision.”
Chuckles accompanied the navigator’s observation. Zen rolled his eyes and returned the grins directed at him by two of the other three crew members present on the bridge.
“Serk,” Zen said, his gaze turning toward his second in command, “Run a scan on that ship.”
“Already in progress.” As usual, the Adarian had anticipated Zen’s order. His fingers — retractable claws currently hidden — were finessing the control keys for every bit of information as his almond-shaped, emerald-green eyes remained glued to the monitor that scrolled info at its operator’s command. “It seems we have a… Captain, that ship is a Dukati shuttle craft.”
With the ship’s identity revealed, the jovial mood on the bridge vanished and every person present went from relaxed to battle ready. The Dukati were a warrior race known for their random and ruthless raids against anyone not strong enough to defend themselves. Zen was hit by a sting of anticipation laced with hostility. He was more than willing to engage in conflict should the Dukati choose to initiate it, but caution warred with aggression to keep his hatred for them in check. For the sake of his crew it would be better to avoid trouble.
“Shields up. Scanners at max. Harren, report any subspace chatter,” Zen ordered his communications specialist. “Serk, any other ships in the area and how many on the shuttle?”
“No other ships currently in range of our scanners. One life sign on the shuttle and they don’t appear to be doing too well.”
“Explain.”
“Life signs are weak. The life-support system is failing.”
“Give me a thorough scan on the shuttle right down to the last nut and bolt. On the passenger too. If there’s so much as a hair out of place I want to know about it. As fast as you can, Serk.”
“On it, Captain.”
“Mengs, take us out of warp. Clay, I want everyone armed. We’re on red alert, people.”
“Aye, Captain.” Clay Delgato, in charge of ship’s security, turned to a panel near his station and keyed in the code which opened it. A whisper of sound accompanied the slide of the door as it revealed sleek black scorch pistols and the sturdy, woven belts that would carry them. He went quickly from crew member to crew member passing one set each to Zen and the others.
Serk, who was still engaged with his scans, held his arms out, giving Clay, his mate, room to fasten the belt at his waist. Green eyes met brown and a quick smile was exchanged before Serk made his report. “Captain, the scanners are finding no anomalies. The shuttle and its passenger appear to be clean and from what the biosensors are telling me, the passenger is not Dukati.”
“That’s fortunate. A Dukati I’d just as soon launch out an airlock no matter what shape he’s in. All right gentlemen, it seems we have a rescue to enact. Mengs, I want a tractor beam on that ship. Haul it into the hangar bay. Clay, you’re with me. Harren, tell Doc and Jacks to meet us in the hangar bay. Serk, you have the bridge and keep an eye on the long range scanners. I don’t want any unexpected guests crashing our party.”
Various voices called out, “Aye, Captain,” as Zen prepared to leave the bridge.
With Clay at his side he strode to a set of double doors that slid open to reveal a small chamber. As soon as the men entered the brightly lit cubicle, the doors slid shut behind them and they were scanned by the internal sensors of the bioporter.
“Hangar bay,” Zen called out.
“Hangar bay,” repeated a digitally synthesized yet lyrical voice.
Absolute darkness engulfed them and for a split second Zen wrestled with the surge of adrenaline that sometimes spilled through his veins and made his heart beat faster when being transported. The sensation of being struck blind was disconcerting until tiny whirling streams of light twinkled, blazed, then gradually faded. With only the tiniest sensation of having been moved, Zen’s vision returned unimpeded. He and Clay stepped out of the bioport chamber and into the safety zone sealed behind a set of thick, metal-framed glass doors.
The hangar bay held two six-passenger shuttles neatly parked in their designated places beside four hover cycles. Other than a small work area for the ship’s engineer, the rest was open space. Caution lights flashed as the hangar bay doors slowly opened.
A rainbow swirl of colors indicated the presence of the atmospheric membrane which prevented everything in the hangar bay from being sucked out into space. As the Dukati shuttlecraft moved forward, the membrane yielded to the pressure, but rather than break, it melded itself to the small ship and clung to its every contour. The ship eased through and was brought to a halt, settling in its new berth near one of the Brizo’s shuttlecraft.
When the hangar bay doors were again secure, the safety zone doors automatically opened and Zen and Clay headed toward the shuttle. A chime informed them of an incoming transport. Both men paused and looked back as the bioport’s interior doors slid open. A tall man and a slim woman stepped out. Without a word, Clay handed each of them a holstered scorch pistol.
“Dukati shuttlecraft. Latest design too. We salvaging this baby?” Meral Jackson, ship’s engineer, asked as she belted on her weapon. Her hazel eyes twinkled with good-natured avarice. “I’d love to get my hands on her.”
“Why does something so innocuous sound so lewd coming out of your mouth?” Doc’s thin lips were pinched in a grimace as one eyebrow rose.
Jackson grinned. “Can I help it if I admire a shapely hull?”
“Shouldn’t you concentrate on getting the hatch open? Serk’s last report gives the passenger approximately seventeen minutes before the oxygen runs out.”
“Seventeen minutes? Piece of cake. I’ll have it open in less than two.”
Doc’s snort of disbelief brought a speculative gleam to Jackson’s eyes. “Wanna bet?”
“Bet what?”
“Five greens at the next poker game.”
“A hundred and twenty-five credits?”
“You in or out?”
Doc aimed a squinty-eyed scowl at Jackson. “In.”
“Time me.” Jackson turned her attention to the shuttle and dug into her tool pouch, which was perpetually attached to her by a cross-body strap.
Directing a look of sympathy toward the ship’s main medical practitioner, Zen shook his head. “I’m pretty sure you’ve been suckered, Doc.”
“We’ll see.”
As Zen watched, Jackson found whatever she’d been looking for and set to work. Muscles flexed under the smooth tanned skin of her bare arms as she punched a series of keys on the flat, rectangular unit she held in her hand. A slight turn of her head brought her profile into relief and set a few glimmers of light chasing through the strands of her blonde pixie-cut.
Having learned at her father’s knee from the time she was old enough to pick up a sonic wrench, Jackson knew her way around a multitude of ship types and systems. Zen had little doubt the shuttlecraft door would give her any trouble.
From the small unit she held in her hand, a continual series of chirps issued as a cycle of colored light beams played over the closed shuttle hatch. As the seconds passed, one by one each beam turned green.
“Twenty seconds,” Doc warned.
“No worries. It’s… done!” Jackson’s announcement was triumphant as the hatch slowly lifted. Stepping back, she made way as the steps began to lower.
“Damn,” Doc cursed softly. “Don’t you have anything better to do than practice breaking and entering?”
“For your information, nothing broke and no, I don’t. As ship’s engineer I see to it the Brizo performs like a Xanasian courtesan being paid double. Smooth and compliant.”
“You’d know.”
“A girl’s gotta have her fun.” Jackson’s unabashed wink brought a quick grin to Zen’s lips and snort of amusement from Clay.
All four of them quickly sobered as the now fully opened hatch ceased all movement. Zen motioned Jackson and Doc back. Weapons drawn, he and Clay approached the yawning hatch. Touching the small, round and flat metal disc attached to his collar, Zen voiced a soft question. “Serk, any change in the scans?”
“None, Captain. All readings remain within normal parameters. The passenger hasn’t moved. Nothing on long range scanners.”
The shuttle’s inner lights were dim, the interior shadowed, with no sign of the passenger. About to take a step forward, a quick negative motion from Clay stopped Zen in his tracks. Zen gave way and allowed his security officer to precede him. Clay went aft where the last scan placed the shuttle’s passenger. As soon as Clay stepped within the murky interior of the shuttle, Zen lost sight of him.
His own foray into the ship was accomplished without incident and he turned to the fore and the ship’s controls. Each space along the way was examined, between and under seats in case something had remained undetected. Every unoccupied space was clear and the shuttle quiet as a tomb.
Reaching the ship’s control’s Zen gave them a quick once over. Except for the blinking lights indicating the failing life support system, everything else seemed in order.
“Captain?”
Zen touched his communications disc. “You find our guest?”
“Yeah. Can you bring up the lights? We need Doc in here on the double and he’s gonna need ‘em.”
“Right away.”
Zen called Doc and Jackson in and adjusted the lighting while waiting for Jackson to join him at the controls. “Do a thorough exam on all systems, Jacks,” Zen ordered when she appeared. “Make sure this thing can’t be traced. Something doesn’t seem right here. Why would the life support fail? This shuttle’s so new the paint’s barely dried.”
“I’m on it, Zen.” Jackson seated herself at the controls and began running ship diagnostics.
Leaving Jackson to her work, Zen made his way back to Clay and Doc. The closer he came, the more pungent the scent. The coppery tang assaulting his heightened sense of smell weighed heavy on the still air. Doc was squatting near a body, his med scanner beeping and flashing in a way Zen could tell bode ill. Side-stepping Clay, Zen was able to take in the full picture. He drew in a sharp breath. What once had been a vision was now covered in blood and lay still as death on the deck.
The shuttle’s passenger was male. In contrast to the obsidian darkness of his softly curling hair, his skin was bone white. Sweat dampened bangs adhered to forehead and stuck there. His full lips were slightly parted and his finely chiseled, androgynous features were slack. His almost too-delicate-to-be-male appearance was emphasized by his current condition.
He wore a pair of near-diaphanous pants that hugged his body from the waist down like a second skin. Other than a pair of wide, embossed silver bracelets that encircled his wrists, his upper body was nude. The man lay on his stomach, his back clearly visible, the damage done to it horrendous. Thin strips of skin had been peeled away leaving raw open wounds that had bled profusely before clotting. Rusty spatters of blood had soaked into his pants, as well as the matted curls that touched the back of his neck.
Shock, fury and the raw reminder of a familial tragedy pummeled Zen in equal measure at the sight of such torture being visited on someone who appeared to be little more than a helpless captive. His hatred of the Dukati — something that was branded into his very soul — twisted within him.
“Son of a Bactrian bitch.” Zen cursed not only the savage act so blatantly displayed on the young man’s back, but also at the reminder of what that selfsame act had cost him. “They used a fucking flayer on him. Doc?”
“He’s hanging on, but we need to get him to the med bay now. Not that I think he’d wake up, but just in case I’ve attached a nerve blocker, so let’s hurry. I can’t leave it in place very long without causing nerve damage, but it’s that or nothing.” Doc indicated the flat, square metal chip now sealed to a patch of uninjured skin on the man’s shoulder. “I can’t administer any drugs until I get this mess cleaned up and have a better idea of what I’m dealing with. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, be damn careful how you handle him. If you can avoid it, don’t touch his back.”
“We need a stretcher,” Clay said.
“No time. Grab a blanket from the supply locker. We’ll slide him on it and carry him to the bioporter,” Zen answered. He touched his communications disc. “Serk, send Kyle to med bay and have him transport down here on the double with a gurney, then resume course and get us the hell out of here. The Dukati may come looking for their missing shuttle.”
“Right away, Captain.”
When Clay returned with the blanket, Zen helped him lay it out and as carefully as possible the two of them maneuvered the injured man onto it. With each of them grabbing two corners of their makeshift stretcher, they shuffled out of the shuttle in time to hear the bioporter’s alert chime sound. The door slid open.
Zen noted with approval Kyle’s prompt arrival and the way he hurried to meet them. Kyle helped Doc settle their patient on the gurney and took charge of wheeling him back into the bioporter.
“You two wait here,” Doc ordered as he followed Kyle and the gurney into the bioport chamber. “I’m taking him up lift mode. The last thing he needs right now is to have his innards scrambled.”
Taking a last glance at the injured young man’s pale, still face, Zen stepped back. “All right, Doc. Go.”
* * *
An hour later Zen was seated at the conference table in an area just off the bridge that served as everything from meeting room to casino when the weekly poker game was in session. He listened attentively as Jackson filled him in on the shuttle situation.
“It had the expected tracking beacon that could be activated by any Dukati vessel looking for it,” Jacks said, “but there was also a backup designed to kick in and send out an immediate signal if the regular beacon was tampered with. Both are now disabled. We don’t have to worry about the Dukati on our tail with absolute proof we’ve got their shuttle. Not to mention that poor kid in the med bay. How’s he doin’?”
“Doc’s got him stabilized,” Zen answered. “He’s still working on him.”
“You okay?”
Zen’s eyes met Jack’s and noted the concern in hers. “I’m fine. Why do you –”
“You know perfectly well why I’m asking. Don’t be an ass, Zen.”
“I may be the captain of this ship, but I have just as much right to be an ass as anyone else on board.” Zen tried a smile, but gave it up under the pressure of Jack’s unwavering stare. He sobered and sighed. “It stirred the bad memories, but like I said, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Now what else did you find? I can see there’s something you’re just dying to tell me. Spill it.”
“It’s the reason the life support failed. There was a clever little bug inserted into the ship’s system. It initiated the failure and began to erase itself at the same rate the life support degraded. Once the life support died, all traces of the bug would disappear. Damn clever piece of programming. Anyone finding the shuttle after total life support failure would never be able to figure out what went wrong.”
“They’d put it down to some sort of pilot error.”
“Exactly.”
“So someone tortures our passenger not quite enough to have him die outright, throws him in a rigged shuttle and sets him loose where life support failure would finish the job. Why would they do that?”
“Maybe they didn’t dare kill him outright. They wanted to make it look like he escaped, but needed to make sure he didn’t survive. If I had to guess, I’d say he was under someone’s protection and that person got careless. You know it’s said the Dukati sometimes make pets of some of their captives.”
Zen nodded. Those stories had already given him hope and nightmares in equal measure. The very idea that his little brother and sister might yet be alive, but under those conditions, rattled him to the core. A thousand times it came to mind that they’d be better off dead. Yet Zen couldn’t bring himself to wish it, and each time he wondered if it was selfishness for wanting them to be alive or cowardice for being afraid to let them go.
He pushed those thoughts away. “Rumor has it only high level Dukati are allowed the privilege of claiming pets. Whoever did this wanted to be able to say he didn’t die by their hand, but rather by the shuttle’s malfunctioning life support. Of course we won’t know for certain until we can talk to our unexpected passenger, holies heal him.”
“Actually, that’s my job, and getting answers out of him won’t be happening for a while,” Doc said as he entered the room and took a seat. “I have an update on my patient.”
Zen acknowledged Doc with a nod then returned his attention to Jackson. “We need to dispose of that shuttle in a way it can’t be traced to us. Any ideas?”
Jack’s smile was beatific. “I know a guy who’ll make her disappear like she never existed. No questions asked, and the parts’ll be scattered to half a dozen systems before we hit Ilsan for our cargo drop.”
“The drop off won’t take us off course?”
“Nope. He runs a mobile shop, if you get my drift.”
“Make it happen. I’ll leave the financial negotiations up to you. Equal shares for everyone, including our passenger.”
“Yes!” Jacks bounced up out of her chair and practically skipped out of the room.
“You’ve made her day. There were stacks of credits dancing in her eyes.”
Zen chuckled. “What have you got for me?”
“He’s stable. His physiology is similar enough to ours that he can accept transfusions with no problem. I’m pushing fluids and antibiotics. He’s developed a fever, but that’s not unexpected. The injuries to his back… they’ll heal. Sluget gel will alleviate most of the scarring, but not all if it. Some of the wounds were pretty deep. Whoever did this is a vicious son of a bitch.”
“Agreed. Anything else?”
Doc’s expression confirmed what Zen had already assumed. “Previous scarring on his back and buttocks. Not recent and very thin stripes. Not from a flayer. Some sort of switch if I had to guess. There’s been sexual abuse. Again, some older scarring. I’ve taken steps to minimize all damage, recent and old, as much as possible. His body will be fine. No lack of feeling or hindrance of function. As to his emotional and mental state, I can’t speak. He hasn’t woken at all.”
Zen nodded. “All right, Doc. Keep me informed.”
With Doc’s departure Zen was left with his thoughts. He found them bouncing between his missing siblings and the young man now recovering in med bay.

Thursday Teaser

‘Tangled Up In You’, sounds inviting, yes?

Please enjoy this Thursday Teaser…. No cover yet. There will be one soon. 🙂

Tangled Up in You

Prologue

“Rey. Now.”
What could he have possibly done to deserve this fate? Bowing his head in obeisance, he left his master’s side to follow the victim.
It was a young victim, barely more than a child, and he hated his master anew for making him deal death to one with so many possibilities.
Defiance was unthinkable and so he approached the victim on rubbery legs. And smiled to make the victim’s last minutes pleasant. “Are you Shawn?” he asked, pluking the victim’s name from the other’s mind without difficulty. This one was an innocent in truth, hiding nothing from those around him.
His victim extended a stubby-fingered hand. “I am. Are you Mr. Reynard?”
So, this is why my master chose this victim. Or at least partially why. Grasping the offered hand, he smiled more broadly “I am. And I can already tell you’re going to be right for this job. Punctuality and friendliness are key.” He took half a step closer in the small office, releasing the victim’s hand.
Shawn. His name is Shawn Michael O’Reilly. Called Mick by his friends, of which he has many. Remember. Never forget.
“Really?” Shawn’s eyes squinted as his smile threatened to overrun his face. “You don’t know how glad I am to hear that.”
Forgive me. Never knowing to whom he prayed, or if there was even someone out there, Reynard stepped forward swiftly and snapped the young man’s neck with a quick twist so that Shawn Michael “Mick” O’Reilly died with a smile on his face.
When the human’s breath was stopped and Reynard was sure the soul inside the body had time to escape, he lowered the corpse to the floor and unsheathed his knife. With delicate precision he cut Shawn’s sandy blond ponytail from his head. Then he pressed the hair to the end of his own braid and murmured “Yours to you and yours to mine. Death to you and some essence to me.”
The hair fused seamlessly with Reynard’s locks, showing its bland color briefly before merging with the off-blond of the strands surrounding it. If his hair had been unbraided, it would have trailed after him along the floor like a bridal train.
He’d killed many in the last ten years.
“Stop mooning over him and feed me.”
Standing, he bowed to his master and then opened his mouth. When his master’s tongue invaded his mouth, drinking the sensation of Shawn Michael O’Reilly’s death, Reynard suppressed a wince.
Please, oh please let this end. But no one and nothing answered his begging and the kiss went on until it was finished.
“Now I can sleep a bit.” The psychic vampire chuckled and turned away, pulling Reynard by one wrist. “Take me home.”
Linked together, they walked from the silent office and toward the stairs. If they were quick no one would realize they’d been here at all. Together they passed between chattering employees.
They were felt; humans shivered with sudden cold. But because of Reynard’s gifts they were not seen.
Invisible to all, they passed out into the sunlight.
* * * *
Jason Campbell stared at the pink slip. Printed on real pink paper. Nothing but the most authentic for a traditionalist tracker like me.
Flipping over the pink slip with some idea of writing a rude response to alleviate his frustration a little, Jason saw this:
–You still get your full retirement package but you must step out.
Step out. His boss, Agent Weinberg’s, way of saying Jason had stayed too long. That he’d overstepped his boundaries one to many times.
Or maybe she wasn’t saying that at all. Overstepping his restrictions was how Jason had often gotten the job done. Maybe Agent Weinberg was simply saying he was too damn old.
Forty-eight isn’t old.
Except, when talking about he tracker profession, forty-eight was out to pasture for at least ten years. A tracker’s career was often measured in years rather than decades. I’m a damned baseball player. Or a figure skating star. Too old for the job and too bull headed to be trusted with a position behind a desk.
Just the thought of an office post made Jason’s stomach knot and he admitted he would never take such a job even if one was offered with triple pay and benefits equal to those he’d enjoyed as a tracker.
I’m already starting to think of my job as in the past. He supposed that meant he was ready for retirement. Or at least ready to accept the pink slip as fact rather than something negotiable.
“Jay. Jay? You in there?”
Oh God help him. Everyone else called him Agent Campbell. Even that upstart, Pierce, managed to use his last name. But this one… This devilish elemental…
Easy, Jason, he counseled himself. There’s one good thing about pink slip retirement already. You won’t have to deal with Bergdorf. Smiling just a little as this idea grew roots, Jason tucked the pink slip into his back pocket and opened his office door. “What?” he demanded, schooling his features automatically before the irritating gnome.
“I’m in your corner if you need anything. The Chief’s being to hard on you if she gave you any sort of reprimand for that Warner business. I’ll stand right up next to you and tell her so. Just watch me.”
And he probably would, the loyal fool. That was one of the biggest reasons Bergdorf hadn’t risen higher in the ranks during his five years as a tracker. He was still too trusting, too protective of those he considered friends, and too devoted, if such a thing could be, the SearchLight’s tenets.
“It’s nothing like that,” Jason told him. “I’m being let go. That’s all”
“Fired?” Bergdorf all but squeaked.
Jason considered the pink slip and nodded. “Yes.” Bergdorf’s fearful expression compelled him to add, “But with full retirement benefits.”
The younger agent’s face cleared and then clouded over like a bright blue sky hidden by the District of Colombia’s most pervasive smog. “Then you’re not really being fired?”
The pink slip’s duplicity had been chewing at the back of Jason’s mind as well and he said, “I suppose I’ll find out the truth when I speak with Agent Weinberg.” He plastered a pleasant expression on his face when Bergdorf continued to look uncertain and troubled. “Don’t worry. This will straighten itself out.”

Chapter One

As commanded, Jason Campbell skipped through the wild flowers that divided his sister’s wheat filed from the dirt lane.
No.
He walked. Neither shambling nor plodding, he walked. And although he had been ordered to “go skip in the daises” by his sister he was only obeying because he wanted to be out of the house. He’d been in Kansas less than three hours and he already wanted to run back to DC.
But nothing awaited him in Washington. The nation’s capital held nothing for him now that he’d been let go.
Jason stopped, head tilting as he caught the ringing, mournful sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed. He discounted it and kept walking. Any idiot could make the guitar sound beautiful. It was a welcoming instrument, almost as easy as a child’s recorder and much more pleasant.
He stopped again, and a slow smile warmed his broad features. The guitarist was plucking the instrument and making music. True and compelling runs of notes like water over a fall. Jason nodded to the melody carried on the galloping accompaniment. He knew this one and he began to sing softly.
“Papa, Papa, build me a boat
“That I might on the ocean float.
“To hail all ships as they pass by
“And to enquire for my darling boy.”
It was a griever’s song full of loss and no promise of comfort. Jason loved it and would have, he told himself, even if he hadn’t been smarting from forced retirement.
He left the band of wildflowers and walked beside the dirt lane where only the occasional tractor passed. He would be trespassing in the neighbor’s field by following the music but he had a hope that trespassing wasn’t as strictly watched and enforced here as in DC.
The melody rang over the broken chords and the second verse flitted through Jason’s mind. He didn’t sing. It seemed blasphemous to cover the guitar’s voice with his own.
As we were out on the Eastern Isle
We lost four men
And your darling boy.
As we were out on the Eastern Isle
We lost four men…
And your darling boy.
He entered another field of wheat, passing between the rows like a ghost, unseen and leaving little to no trace of his passing. Children of the corn. He smirked briefly before letting it fall away. Child of the wheat is more to the point but who ever heard of a horror story with that title? There were things that lived in corn fields. And wheat fields. Hungry things that called for human blood and were often sustained on birds and bugs while waiting for weary travelers.
Jason had killed some of them.
He shrugged the memories away and fixed his gaze on the single grain silo that lifted its head above the drowsy August world. There was a farmhouse beyond the grain silo but a good distance off, leaving the gray and circular exclamation point all but alone.
The music seemed to be coming from the grain silo’s top. And impossible as that surely was—grain silos were places of storage, not sitting—Jason shielded his eyes and squinted, looking up for the first glimpse of the player.
“I’m too far away,” he whispered as the music left off “The Sailor Lad” and went into a skipping tangle of notes that he didn’t recognize. “I can’t possibly see him. Or her.”
Still he peered and much sooner than he would have thought he’d reached the base of the grain silo. There was a broken ladder on its side, a rusted thing that hung in defiance of the silo’s otherwise well-tended look.
He began circling the silo, searching for another way up. Because the music was definitely coming from above him and he needed to find the guitarist. He needed to.
And while he sought, the laughing melody went on.
* * * *
Reynard sensed the gnat far below and his heart ached. He fell into a faster rhythm in an attempt to relieve the pain. Go away, he thought at the gnat who was really an innocent of some kind. A human innocent of some kind. Go away. Save yourself. Not that he was dangerous on his own but he was bound to a ravenous beast.
“Go away, go away,” he chanted against the plucking of his right hand. “Go away, go,” he muttered as his left hand found chord after chord and changed the song without Reynard’s conscious desire to another sad song. This one was without words and Reynard hated the silence left when he quit speaking.
He purposely changed the song and, unable to keep away from sad songs, began making up one of his own.
“Fly, little, fly, little,
“Fly, little bird.
“Far away from me,
“Far away from him,
“Far from your own desires.”
That wasn’t half bad and Reynard went on:
“Run, little, run, little
“Run, little bear.
“Dangerous parents you have
“Dangerous you will become,
“But dangerous I am.
“Run. Run. Run.”
But the gnat—the man—was now prodding at the ladder below. If he kept doing that he would discover the silo’s secret. Then there would be little Reynard could do to keep him away. To keep him safe.
He bent a touch more magic into the song, hoping it would affect the man as his first attempt with small magic had not. And he sang.
“Creep, little, creep, little,
“Creep, little gnat
“Far from me.
“Far from here.
“Far from your death.”
For an instant this seemed to work. The man hesitated with his hands not quite resting on the invisible rungs of the ladder that only looked rusted.
Then he began to climb.
He did it fast, as if he was afraid he’d rethink his actions. Or maybe, Reynard decided when he caught a glimpse of the man’s briefly upturned face, as if he had climbed invisible ladders before. The act might be completely commonplace.
What sort of man is this? Reynard stepped back from his window as the stranger neared. Why isn’t he affected by my music, by my magic? A frisson of excitement rushed to the ends of all his fingers and curled his toes. There had never been a mere mortal able to resist him. Who was this man?
Maybe he isn’t a mere mortal human. But when Reynard had sent out his magic to stop the stranger he had felt no answering magic. The immune newcomer was as mundane as sliced bread
He allowed himself a brief smile as the memory of his childhood, years without sliced bread, years of loaves never precut, flitted through his mind. He’d lived long enough to see something that had once seemed ostentatious become common. This man, to, might become the accepted thing.
But not now, he thought as the stranger climbed through the window and stood in the same room with Reynard in spite of the ‘go away melody. Now he is a miracle. Reynard bowed, not wondering at his sudden desire to be formal. “Welcome.” That sounded as if he’d expected the man. “You are a surprise. That sounded rude. Quit analyzing your words and say something that is truly you. “You are welcome here, miraculous stranger.” That at least seemed like him even if it remained overly meditated and formal.
The average-looking man returned his bow. “Thank you. I am Jason Campbell.
Weren’t names a thing of power? Yes, but this man seemed unafraid of that. And he may not have given his full name. Or even his true one.”Rey.” He paused. “Reynard.” Let the man make of that truth what he would. Many of those Reynard introduced himself to ended up dead at his feet.
A lock of sandy brown hair dropped over the man’s forehead and he brushed it away with what looked to be an impatient gesture. As if he wasn’t used to having even a little bit of hair out of place.
Or I’m reading too much into a simple movement. Ah but I haven’t been this off kilter in my responses and assumptions for years. Of course, he also hadn’t met anyone unexpectedly in years. Not since the beginning of his slavery.
“Do you claim to be the fox god or something akin?” Jason Campbell asked.
Reynard grinned. And transformed into his fox form, his clothes fading into nothingness as he shifted. Peering up at the man through his fox eyes, he wondered why he’d thought his guest ordinary He smelled of years upon years of close contact with magic even though he had none of his own. He also smelled of a woman, another man, and children. At least a dozen.
And chickens. He smelled of chickens.
The scents were threatening to overwhelm him and Reynard changed swiftly back to his human shape, clothes reappearing around him. Such distractibility was the cause of his enslavement. And in any case he had no desire to stop talking with this stranger Particularly when there was little danger of his master discovering them and hurting what was quickly becoming the most interesting person Reynard had known in decades
“That proves only your shapeshifting ability.” Yet Jason Campbell had taken a step back. “Leave it for now. I have no desire to become entangled with another magical creature. I came because of the music you played
Came because of it rather than being driven away? Curiouser and curiouser, thought Alice. He didn’t allow his mouth to twitch with this quote. He wanted something from Jason Campbell and he might even get it if the man was as unaffected as he seemed. “You enjoy depressing ballads?”
“There’s nothing depressing in the contemplation of death as part of life’s dangers,” Jason answered.
Reynard retreated to his guitar and picked it up. “Do you play?”
“A little. I’ve never had the time that I’d…” He frowned thunderously “If that was an example of your magic, getting me to say more than I intended, it is unwelcome.”
“I do not use my magic to get others to talk.” Only to listen. “There is little mortals can teach me.” He held out the guitar, gripping it casually by the neck.
Jason took it with both hands and with a reverent ease that reminded Reynard of a priest he’d met once. The man had handled chalice, bread, and other holy implements of his faith with a comfort borne of long use and an ingrained sense of responsibility.
Jason tucked the guitar against his body, holding it in place with his right arm as his left had found a chord on the neck. He strummed on open fifth and then a seventh chord. Then he was singing the first verse of “The Golden Vanity” about the boy who’d been tricked into giving his life for an ungrateful captain.
Reynard joined him on the second verse even as he strode to the far wall and took down his fiddle. He settled into the easy chord structure Jason played—I, IV, V, I—and found the countermelody by the fourth verse.
They finished together:
“Oh there is a lofty ship and she sails on the sea.
“But she sails without a cabin boy the age of twelve and three.
“And she fears she will be taken by a Turkish enemy…”
Here Jason dropped out, although he continued to play the chords Reynard halted in the middle of the first word of the last line and asked, dropping the countermelody and matching Jason chord for chord, “Why did you stop?”
“Because I love the…” Jason coughed and his fingers stuttered on the strings. He fumbled the guitar and the music died. “Don’t do that. I am not your toy.”
Reynard held the fiddle at his side and the bow in his opposite hand. He tried to look innocent, knew it was a lost cause because of the foxy—pun definitely intended—slant of his features. “My magic doesn’t work that way.” This was closer to a lie than his first statement. His magic could be used any way he chose. Or nearly. “In any case, I meant nothing by it if I did release a little magic.” That was more honest He did not want to frighten this man away now that he was here.
Jason raised sandy colored eyebrows at hi and his mouth turned down for a moment, revealing wrinkles that spread all over his face before disappearing. He was older than he’d first appeared.
So perhaps I am not the only one who is more than he seems. Reynard discovered he liked the idea of an older human. It was as if the burden of years carried with it a promise of experience. And he liked his men experienced.
There went his libido. Dormant while doing his master’s bidding. Even asleep when the young man or woman they approached held every characteristic of conventional beauty. Now his cock was half erect and he took a step closer to the object of his desire. “How old are you?”
Jason snorted and some of the tension went out of his posture “Does it matter when you have all but claimed to be older than the hills?”
“Not older than they.” He smiled, hoping to entice an answer, a true answer, out of Jason without magic. “Humor me?”
“I’m forty-eight.”
For some reason that age seemed to bother him “You are handsome no matter your age, Reynard blurted, surprising himself into a blush. He knew it would show like a beacon against his pale and freckled Irish skin.
Jason snorted again; There was little to no humor in it. “I am a retired SearchLight agent if that means anything to you.”
Reynard tensed, but tried to speak casually. “I know of SearchLight. They can do little to help my present situation but I know of them.”
“What help do you speak of?” It was Jason’s turn to take a step forward.
“More than you can give,” Reynard answered quickly, retreating from the concern in the man’s softening gaze. “Let’s play more.” He lifted his fiddle to his shoulder. And relased more than a touch of magic to encourage even though his magic had done little so far.
This time Jason was taken in. He tucked the guitar as before under one arm. “What shall we play?”
Reynard was disappointed. His miracle man hadn’t survived much more than a drop of magic. Apparently, he wasn’t as special as Reynard had first thought. “‘Mary Hamilton,’” he said in response to Jason’s question. This was a more modern ballad but it fulfilled Jason’s stated desire for songs about death that he somehow didn’t find depressing.
“I don’t know that one.” Jason sounded disappointed. Even a little sulky. Then he brightened. “But my sister says I can play anything if I hear it once. Play the melody.”
Hating the effect his magic had wrought and yet unable to take it back without casting more magic on the half-puppet, Reynard began to play.
And, true to his word, Jason picked it up almost at once. If not for the slightly lost cast to his eyes having someone to play with would have been bliss.

An Encore for First Chapter Friday

Dear Readers and Fans:

Greetings! We have an encore for First Chapter Friday. Another upcoming work from Autumn Montague, ‘An Unintended Seduction’. Please find the first Chapter below. Please Enjoy! Happy Saturday. 🙂

Peace,

Emily

Excerpt:

Chapter One
London, 1816
“Hell and damnation!” Julian Charing, Ninth Earl Hetherton, swore as a wayward drop of sweat stung his eye. He scrubbed at the offending moisture with his upper arm, the one part of that limb still covered. Both sleeves were rolled to the elbows, though that precaution had done little to preserve their once-pristine whiteness. The young stallion being groomed slammed sideways, momentarily pinning him to the stable wall.
“Stand still, you impudent piece of cattle!”
“He won’t listen, m’lord.” The old groom’s eyes twinkled with the humor and subtle impertinence of a lifelong servant.
Julian attempted to quell that bit of presumption with a severe frown, an impossible task at best. As expected, James only flashed him an impudent grin. The man had known Julian since he’d worn leading strings.
Turning back to the horse, Julian continued the rubdown of his skittish mount. As the arrant idiot who’d let his temper best his good sense, it behooved him to master his rage until both he and Mercury calmed. Venting his frustration on the hapless animal was useless. He should have yielded to the heat of his anger earlier—perhaps it would have ended the ridiculous, aggravating situation that plagued him now.
His once-cherished morning ride had become a disaster and he a laughingstock. All of this thanks to a woman who did not understand the word no meant exactly that. His greatest humiliation, the scandal of the ton, had become an embarrassment, a ball and chain he could not break.
It had not promised to become such a terrible thing at the start. Affairs among men of his station were commonplace, though usually one did not dally with the wife of an old friend, as he had done. Nor was it unusual to pursue such engagements with more than one woman. Most men, however, did not repeat their disastrous mistakes with the same woman.
Having finally realized this error, Julian had striven for two years now to disentangle himself from the situation—to no avail. Geraldine Huntsford possessed an appalling habit of being disobliging and making a public display of the two of them. Did the woman feel no shame?
Mercury snorted and stamped, irritated by the painful brush strokes against his hide. Julian unclenched his white-knuckled grip on the wooden handle. The stallion soon steadied under the softer brushing.
Failure? An abysmal disaster, rather. Lady Huntsford stalked him like a cat after a mouse in a hole. He could not avoid her, no matter where he went. Once, the morning rides had been a mutual thing, meant for privacy, despite the blatant nature of their affair. Now they were akin to a ride through hell. The woman flung herself in his path at every opportunity in her attempts to recapture what he now refused.
He’d given thanks when she’d left London last month to visit her parents. For four blessed weeks, he’d reveled in his solitude. He had hoped her decampment meant she had taken his last words of parting to heart. Her behavior this morning dashed those hopes. Geraldine Huntsford would not let him go, gracefully or otherwise.
“I think he’s clean, m’lord,” James suggested, as he moved to Julian’s side to take the brush. “I’ll finish him, if you don’t mind.”
Julian gave the man a rueful glance. “Made a fool of myself, did I?”
“No, m’lord, not a fool, but this colt’s still green. Ye’ll set his teeth on edge. I’ve no liking to be kicked when I muck.”
“You’re right, of course.” Julian sighed. “I should have known better.” He stepped back to let the man finish the job, watching as Mercury settled under the groom’s knowledgeable touch.
Julian’s fingers still itched to wring one dainty, ill-bred woman’s neck. She had him taking out his anger on a hapless animal with ruthless abandon. A rough rubdown wouldn’t hurt the horse, but it could compromise Julian’s relationship with the fine steed. He left the stall and headed across the garden to the kitchen entrance, using the back stairs to avoid traipsing his dirt through the halls.
Upstairs in his room, Julian dropped into the armchair beside the fire, sagging against the raised wingback. He made no move to undress, despite the stable dust he was undoubtedly leaving on the intricate brocade. He yanked his cravat loose, crushing the starched material in his fist, taking a small bit of pleasure from the satisfying crunch of the crisply starched linen.
Julian shut his eyes, wishing himself to the devil. Not for the first time, nor the last. He was a craven coward—that was the long and the short of it. He must be, for he’d made such a mull of his life that there was no saving him.
“My lord?”
Julian suppressed a groan at the subtle reproof in that mild question. “Forgive me, Stimms,” he sighed, opening his eyes to look at his valet’s stern expression. “It seems my temper has gotten the best of me this morning, and I fear I have made more work for the staff as a result.”
“I am certain Mrs. Cannon will manage, Master Julian,” Stimms replied.
Though Stimms’ tone remained mild, Julian winced over the man’s reversion to the childhood form of address. It was another subtle reminder that his actions were a touch beyond the pale.
“Lady Huntsford called while you were out, Master Julian.”
It took Julian a moment to register what Stimms had said. Then his head began to pound. “I am not at home when she calls, Stimms. I do not wish to receive her. Ever.”
“Yes, Master Julian. The staff understands, and she is always advised that you are not at home, as you have ordered. However, Lady Huntsford seems…rather determined.” Stimms set aside his casual tone; his voice had become outright disapproving.
Julian clenched his jaw against the vile imprecations hovering on the tip of his tongue. “She is not to be admitted under any circumstances. I don’t care if she is standing on the front step without a stitch on.” Julian ground the words out, jaw muscles aching from the tension. “Find the idiot who told her where I was and dismiss him—or her—for blatant disregard of my wishes otherwise. Fending off Lady Huntsford ruined my morning ride.”
“As you wish, sir.” Stimms tsked over the state of Julian’s clothes, taking the crushed cravat and looking expectantly at Julian. “I understand you will be attending Lord Parkman’s masquerade this evening, Lord Hetherton. Would you prefer your bath now, or would you rather wait until the afternoon?”
The hint was plain, and Julian agreed with only the faintest of growls. Bathing now would save time later and would not delay his other morning duties overmuch.
Once sufficient hot water had been boiled to fill the slipper tub, Julian stepped in with a sigh, considering the masquerade and regretting the acceptance he’d sent to the baron a week earlier. His friendship with Robert Parkman had grown exceedingly strained over the years, primarily due to Julian’s involvement with Lady Huntsford. Not to mention that other, more shameful act that haunted him. Knowing he’d no one to blame but himself, he could only hope Parkman forgave him. If so, Julian would do his best to make amends for his other offense.
First, though, he had to extricate himself from the clutches of a woman who had once been his fiancée. A sigh escaped him, borne of frustration and worry. He’d spent the past two years fighting his way back into society’s good graces and trying to make amends to his old friend.
He fervently hoped Lord and Lady Huntsford would not be attending the Parkman masquerade. If so, she was likely to make a scene and put paid to any chance Julian had of returning to Parkman’s favor.
* * * *
A mass of people crowded the Parkman residence, attired in a variety of costumes, from Roman senators to Aristotle and Sophocles. Lady Parkman graced the rooms dressed as the wife of a Roman senator in a blue sleeveless gown, her blonde hair capping her head in a mass of curls held back by a gold bandeau. Beside her, Lord Parkman wore the white robes of a Roman senator with the signature red cape trimmed in gold. He looked regal and uncomfortable.
Not as uncomfortable as I feel.
Julian had come dressed in full Roman military regalia, complete with a crown of laurel leaves, to represent Julius Caesar, in a nod toward renewing the closeness of their friendship with a hint at what they had once called a “triumvirate.” He hoped it did not make him look ridiculous.
At least he carried it off with more aplomb than did Lord Milford, whose stout figure better suited a senator’s gown than a soldier’s garb. Unfortunately, the mask covering his face did little to hide Milford’s identity. The woman beside him could only be Abigail Milford, more sedately attired. He could not tell which of the myriad Greek or Roman goddesses she had chosen to represent.
He scanned the room in a preemptive search for Lord or Lady Huntsford. Instead, his gaze was caught by the unmistakable figure of Lady Griffindon. The giggling group of young ladies nearby could be none other than her daughters. Julian had no doubt that Matrimonial Ambition lurked in Lady Griffindon’s heart, and he determined to avoid her—and her brood—if such a thing was at all possible.
Near the chattering gaggle stood a young woman garbed in white Grecian robes, sporting a golden shawl and carrying an equally golden apple. Glittering ribbon threaded throughout her coronet of curls and braids, continuing the theme. The red-brown color of the hair and the expressive curve of the lady’s lips called an old memory to mind.
Like sun through dappled autumn chestnut leaves, came the recollection, along with memories of happier times.
Miranda Parkman. Robert Parkman’s little sister, who had traipsed after her brother and his friends, determined not to be outdone. She’d provided a gentle anodyne for a terrible summer and given him tender attention that had almost lured him into marriage.
A twinge of guilt stabbed Julian’s conscience. He had toyed with her affections, leaving her with hopes he had never returned to fulfill, despite hints promising that very thing. A greater shame, even, than his repeated cuckolding of a man who had once been his closest friend.
Yes, forgiveness from Robert Parkman would be hard-won, not only for the wrong Julian had done to their friend Anthony Huntsford, but for crushing the bloom of Miranda Parkman’s first love. Even though such puppy love rarely survived, Julian knew he had been cruel in his complete abandonment of her girlish hopes.
Tonight, Miranda wore a brilliant smile, laughing a little at something one of the Griffindon chits had said. Her merriment caused Julian to smile in turn, and he admired the way her figure showed the simple Grecian gown to great advantage. She had filled out, maturing from a lithesome girl to a lovely, curvaceous beauty.
Though he’d always held a predilection for slim, fragile-seeming women, the full swell of Miranda’s hip and bosom sent a quiet thrill through him as he watched her meander through the crowd, the pleasant sway below her waist drawing his attention downward more than civility allowed.
“Hail, Caesar!”
Julian nearly jumped from his skin at the greeting. He turned and glared at Lord Parkman, who had come up beside him.
His host sported a broad smile, plainly enjoying the sight of Julian in Roman garb. It augured well for a rapprochement and obtaining Parkman’s forgiveness.
“My compliments on such a bold choice,” Parkman continued, with no attempt to hide his amusement. “Elinor insisted on the theme.”
Julian gave a wry smile of appreciation. “Hopefully I do scandalize all the mothers here as I prance about with my knees bare to the world. At least my girth does not strain this soldier’s tunic.” He gave his flat midsection a firm slap to emphasize that distinction between him and the unfortunate Milford.
Robert answered with an appreciative cough and then led Julian over to where Lady Parkman chatted amiably with a woman in green robes. Despite the myriad colors, most of the ladies wore the same style: Grecian or Roman robes, and a black or gold mask. Very few had obvious personas, such as Miranda’s Aphrodite, evident from the gold-painted apple she carried with her.
As they approached, Lady Parkman turned and gave Julian a welcoming smile. “Lord Hetherton. How wonderful of you to join us this evening. I am so glad you acceded to Parkman’s advice. You look quite splendid as Julius Caesar.”
The woman beside Lady Parkman nodded her agreement. “You do look very imperious, Lord Hetherton. I am certain you will have all the ladies here swooning at your feet.” She followed this with a giggle and bade good-bye to Lady Parkman.
Julian followed her progress through the room, certain she went to spread his identity to everyone she met. He sighed, knowing his anonymity would be no more protected than Lord Milford’s. That meant a host of women converging on him throughout the evening, cornering him at every opportunity.
He turned back to Lady Parkman and caught an odd twinkle in her eye. The idea came to him that she had deliberately revealed his identity to her companion. Julian kept his groan firmly behind his teeth. Was this some subtle chastisement for past actions?
As he chatted with the pair, Julian glimpsed a cluster of determined females headed their way. Clearly, it was time to make his escape, if any were to be had. He bowed low, Roman fashion, right fist to left shoulder, and took his leave of host and hostess, ignoring Robert’s sardonic smile.
Despite his haste, Julian’s attempt to flee came too late. The women descended en masse, burying him in a cluster of voices, all clamoring for his attention. Damn. He could not escape with any grace, so he gave in and did his duty as a gentleman, greeting the ambitious mothers and allowing himself to be pressed into dancing with one hopeful daughter after another. He had barely finished when he saw that another group had coalesced, moving to converge on him even before the last strains of the contra-dance ended.
Robert Parkman rescued him just as he wriggled from the clutches of Lady Griffindon and her pretty daughters. Maintaining pleasant conversation with the dowager and her brood had exhausted him, though his dance with Elise Griffindon had been blandly pleasant. His mere presence clearly overawed the young woman. He could not say if it was his title or his person that intimidated the girl.
He said nothing to Lord Parkman until they were out of earshot. Once they had reached a far corner, he leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. “What was your wife thinking, Parkman? She has made me the target of every matchmaking mother and bored wife present.”
Robert laughed at him, taking no pity on his predicament. “She is determined to have you wed, Hetherton. She told me so the other night. She feels it is high time you started your nursery and did your duty to your estate.”
Julian groaned. “Not another matchmaker.”
Parkman laughed. “As reluctant as ever. Nevertheless, Elinor is right, you know. You should leave a son to inherit after you, if only to honor your father’s memory and your grandmother’s wishes.”
Julian looked away. Parkman had the right of it, but the idea of living in a loveless marriage for the rest of his life depressed him beyond measure. “You are correct, of course, but I feel like a prize bit of horseflesh on the block. All the young ladies here are insipid, or spoiled, or unable to utter a coherent sentence in my presence.”
Robert looked at him hard for a moment, his companionable smile gone, replaced by a grim sternness. “Then you should have married my sister. She is none of those things.” He walked away.
Julian stared after, caught unaware by the rebuke, but not at all surprised. He regretted stirring the dormant embers of Parkman’s wrath. Robert Parkman had thoroughly raked him over the coals eight years ago, but Julian’s explanation of concern for her youth had mollified him. Parkman had said nothing on the subject since then, though Julian had known it still rankled. To date, he’d been stonily silent on Julian’s dalliance with Lady Huntsford, despite the gossip the rest of the ton engaged in.
He’d known his friend viewed his dereliction seriously, but Julian had never realized how deeply he must have hurt Parkman, who had always adored his younger sister. Julian hadn’t given thought to the way his actions had humiliated Parkman as a doting brother.
Abandoned for the moment, his own self-recriminations made him uncomfortable. The sight of Lady Griffindon weaving her way through the room with all four girls in tow did not help to ease his situation. Julian cast about him for some means to escape, wishing to avoid the dowager’s matrimonial efforts for her daughters. She had not yet spotted him, but if he lingered where he stood, she would catch him, with no hope of reprieve.
The dark mahogany of Parkman’s study door gleamed between a pair of candlelit sconces, inviting entry. He opened it and slipped in with a soft sigh of relief. “Safe at last.”
Julian nearly jumped out of his skin at the small shriek of fright that met his muttered words. Across the darkened room, the dying embers in the fireplace outlined the shadowed figure of a woman. In the faint red-orange glow, the glimmer of a white Grecian robe and gold-tasseled fringe of a shawl told him Miranda Parkman had also come to this darkened hideaway.

First Chapter Friday

Dear Readers and Fans:

Happy Friday! Today, we are re-sharing the first chapter from Autumn Montague’s upcoming novel, ‘Salva Me’ Book One of the Blood Sworn Series. Please enjoy! Next month, our feature will be ‘Unintended Seduction’.

Please find the chapter shared below.

Enjoy!

Peace,
Emily

Excerpt:

Chapter One
London, 1816
Blood. Sweet, sweet blood thickened with terror. The girl in his arms fought with weakening desperation, her life rushing away through the crimson tide pulsing from her with each frantic beat of her heart. Intoxicating copper heat coursed across his lips, suffusing him with its nourishing power.
Her moans grew fainter as his poison saturated her body. The exquisite torture of emptying his venom flooded his muscles with godlike power, and he tightened his hold, crushing her fragile, merely human form against him. Her gasp of pain drove a spike of lusty pleasure through him. He released her neck to watch her blood flood across her shoulders to stain her flimsy gown.
A waste perhaps, but he could find another. The silent, horrified plea in her dulling eyes spurred his lust, and he ripped the sodden dress open to bare her cotton stays. A hand batted feebly, a near-unconscious impulse to protect her vanished modesty.
Little whore. She’d no need for modesty with him. He had no interest in her person, not yet. Not until she was at the brink. Then he’d spread her legs and revel in her death throes.
Yes. Yes, that peak of ecstasy neared, her glazed eyes beginning to fade. She drew a hitching breath, and he dropped her limp body to the mud, reaching for the fastenings to his breeches.
The clatter of hooves and creak of heavy wheels broke his concentration, his anticipated pleasure vanishing.
Damn! With a frantic bound, he hurled himself into the velvet black shadow of the alley behind him. Frustrated desire boiled through him as he watched the carriage lurch to a halt. A murderous rage rose, urging him to attack the interlopers. He attempted to quash it, but the slavering beast of his hunger did not want to be assuaged. The girl was his rightful prey, and he would be damned if he would allow mere humans to drive him off. He readied himself, prepared to lunge when the correct moment presented.
The tiniest of breezes stirred the air as the passengers descended from the barouche. It carried the oh-so-faint scent of the intruders, driving him back into the shadows.
“Imbecile!” The word escaped him in a hiss. He peered around, forcing his eyes to see, his ears to hear. As if a veil had been drawn back, he realized he stood almost in the heart of London. How had he followed the girl so far without recognizing his danger?
At least one of the men in the carriage knew him by sight and scent. Worse, if they were to meet, his enemy was duty-bound to kill him without hesitation. He twitched, annoyed, uncertain—wanting his prize but unwilling to face his opponent at this moment.
His hunger stilled, replaced by an urgent need to flee. Later. The time would come, but that time was not now. With a last look at the shuddering girl behind him, he forced more venom to his muscles and shivered in delight as he fled into the night.
* * * *
Morgan Holland clenched his teeth against an impious curse as the carriage lurched to an unexpected halt, knocking his skull against the lacquered wooden panel behind his head. Inertial momentum pitched his companion face forward against the opposite seat with bruising abruptness. Morgan gave the trap door over his head a savage thump with his fist, even as he reached to help the Baron of Colbourne up off the floor.
“Blast it all, I’m fine, Holland,” Colbourne barked.
Morgan smothered a grin at his master’s temper over his bruised dignity. He gestured at the gaping tear across the knee of Colbourne’s superfine trousers. “Perhaps we should return home for a change of clothes before we continue to White’s.”
Colbourne scowled. “Damn. Weston just delivered these this week. I’ll have to commission a new pair.”
“As you say, my lord.” Amusement warred with Morgan’s ringing head as he fought to keep a smirk off his face. Colbourne’s penchant for fine clothes had been a constant source of humor between them.
“Don’t be smug, Holland. Just because you managed to maintain your seat is no reason for a swelled head.”
The dour tone proved too much, and a highly inappropriate snort evaded Morgan’s control. Jeremy Takeshi Yamakawa Colbourne, Fifth Baron of Colbourne, took great pains to appear neat and elegant for any evening revelry. Since his Japanese ancestry drew the derision of his peers, he always maintained a flawless nobleman’s appearance. Morgan felt privileged to be among those few who could jest about the habit without giving offense. Moreover, the unique circumstances of Morgan’s employment had built a bond between them, a bond closer to friendship than master and servant.
A sharp rap at the window halted Colbourne’s next salvo even as he drew breath for the words, undoubtedly to cast unmeant aspersions on Morgan’s ancestry. The words died at the sound of their driver’s frantic rap on the door.
It seemed the difficulty interrupting them was more than a mere rut in the road.
“This needs your attention, my lord,” Toby quavered, fear plain in his voice.
Morgan felt a chill worm its way down his spine, a chill having nothing to do with the damp air outside the carriage door. Colbourne’s handsome face tightened, his grave expression igniting an answering spark of alarm in Morgan. He followed his master into the dank night, and nearly choked.
“Plague of the ages!” Colbourne’s biting exclamation did not quite carry the weight of a bellow, but it might as well have been a shout.
The night air carried a familiar coppery tang, laced with the faint odor of bile. Morgan knew the smell, of tainted blood and death. When he’d first met Colbourne, the man had been covered in the same bloody aroma. Morgan could not see this poor soul, not yet, but the smell left no doubt.
“Nosferatu.” He’d never encountered one, only read in books what they were, what they did. Read, and seen what had happened to his master, the Baron of Colbourne, one of the preeminent nosferii nobles in England. Or anywhere else. The last nosferatu to hunt here had almost cost the country its most needed protector.
Colbourne cast a keen glance his way but said nothing, just stepped around the corner of the carriage for a look at what had bollixed their plans for the evening. Morgan followed, suppressing the urge to gag at the foulness of the air. He tried to keep his strides casual, as though he were walking into yet another evening entertainment, not around the carriage corner for a look at a shredded human being.
Colbourne quirked an eyebrow at Morgan’s calm facade. “No one would think twelve years ago you were a mere tenant farmer, untutored in such things.”
“Even a farmer faces death, my lord.” A true enough statement. After all, Morgan had tended to enough carrion when he was younger: dead livestock, headless chickens after foxes raided the coops. Yet none of his experience prepared him for the putrid aroma hovering over the slumped form in the road. The rank odor was fouler than the oldest carcass he’d ever cleared from his fields. With reluctance, he turned his full attention on the unfortunate victim.
“God!” The exclamation burst from him at the appalling sight that met his eyes.
The brown dirt of the road had turned to mud, glistening with the darkness of spilled blood. A young woman lay trembling in that crimson sludge, her neck savaged and raw. The gaping wounds reeked from the pungent slime coating them.
“Well, she lives, Morgan.” Colbourne sighed, as though the fact was unworthy of celebration. “At least for the present.”
“For the present? Is there nothing to be done?” Morgan could not tear his eyes from the girl. She couldn’t have seen more than sixteen, eighteen years at best.
“From the smell of things, the abomination emptied his venom into her.” Colbourne knelt in the mud, oblivious now to his appearance. “See?” He pointed to the ragged edges of the wounds on the girl’s neck. “There are multiple bites here, some more recent than others.” He laid a gentle, gloved finger near the deepest one. “This bite is hours old, and she is nearly exsanguinated. I am amazed she can still draw breath.”
“Is it too late for a turning?”
That caught Colbourne’s attention. His master stood, searching Morgan’s face for something. Then he sighed, perhaps finding no answer to what he sought.
“It is far too late. At this point, all we can do is ease her passing by treating the wound and dosing her liberally with laudanum. I doubt she’ll notice, but it should be done nonetheless.” He gave Morgan another cryptic glance. “I suppose it’s time to introduce you to the real meaning behind the existence of the Colbourne title. I’ll call you to my study after I have fed. In the meantime, you might want to do some research into turnings. The library has plenty of material for your reading.”
Research? Morgan felt the faintest flush of embarrassment warm his neck. It seemed he’d touched on a sensitive topic. He turned to the coachman. “Toby, get the lap blanket.” He considered for a moment. “And your long coat.” Between the blood, the sodden clothing, and the general mess, two layers should provide both warmth for the young woman and protection for the carriage.
Toby returned, and Morgan watched as Colbourne bundled the girl tightly in the coat, wrapping her head to toe in the blanket. When he lifted the fragile burden, Morgan attempted to assist him, only to receive a flat denial.
“This slime will eat through your hide,” Colbourne reminded. “Don’t forget your teachings, Holland.”
Morgan stepped back, feeling the Compulsion his master laid behind the words. He suppressed a sigh. When Colbourne used such a trick, it usually meant unpleasant instruction ahead.
They rode home at a rapid clip, carriage swaying on its springs at Toby’s urgent pace. Morgan could see the lax bundle in his master’s lap out of the corner of his eye, though he did his utmost not to stare. He focused instead on the adorning crest of the panel immediately behind Colbourne’s head, little good though it did him. Every time he relaxed his control, his eyes flew inexorably to the doomed girl. At some point, he glanced down again and discovered her hitching breaths had ceased.
Colbourne’s dark eyes were shuttered. Even in the dimness of their carriage, distress showed in the line between his brows and the bunched muscles of his jaw. Morgan reached across the gap separating them, called to soothe his master’s pain. Dark lashes lifted, revealing Colbourne’s grief at his failure.
Tonight’s enjoyments were meant to be a prelude in advance of Colbourne’s Contracted feeding; a bit of casual camaraderie to make amends for the awkward strain that had recently come between them. With this appalling discovery, the emotional toll on them both could hinder the process. Worse still, it might encourage Colbourne to postpone the feeding.
A tinge of red outlined those dark eyes. “Don’t worry, Holland. I’ll have myself under control by the appointed time.”
“I am certain you will, my lord,” Morgan answered, keeping his voice level. “I worry more for my control than for yours.”
A wistful smile touched Colbourne’s lips. “Your iron will? It will never waver, regardless of my desires.” The smile vanished. “Nonetheless, we will bury this poor child before we begin, Holland. I owe her that much, at least.”
* * * *
At the expected time, Morgan stood outside the sanguis cubiculum, irresolute. After a moment, he drew a deep breath and opened the heavy door enough to slip into the dim room. Hoping to recover his usual calm, he looked around at the comforts scattered about the feeding chamber. His master’s ancestry held full sway here, unlike any other room within Colbourne Manor. In the center, where the Contract always took place, a pile of soft bedding dominated. Oriental basins and water pitchers flanked the futon, with folded cloths of soft linen laid neatly alongside. Wax-paper lanterns lit the room with softened candlelight, casting shadows over the ornate screens and furnishings in the corners.
Colbourne waited on the futon, his white shirt open at the neck. Shadows from the flickering lanterns enhanced his Japanese ancestry, drawing attention to the faint epicanthic folds and the graceful arch of his brow. It presented a strong contrast to the British height and strong jaw, but Colbourne’s nosferii nature blended the two into pleasing harmony. Altogether attractive, sensual, and dangerous for Morgan’s heart, given what usually passed after a feeding.
Over the past twelve years, Morgan had gradually become accustomed to his master’s bisexuality, though with difficulty. It was a hallmark of the nosferii, but as Colbourne had said, Morgan had once been an untutored farmer. The Church of England considered such relationships unnatural and anathema to any God-fearing man. To be accused—worse, to be convicted—bore the potential for death. Earlier this year, Lord Byron himself had fled from England, fallen from his lauded pedestal and hounded by rumors of sodomy. Despite the political immunity granted by the kings of England to the nosferii, what a choice it proved: declare yourself attracted to the same sex, or declare yourself a vampire.
Yet for all the moralizing of his past, for all the strength he put into his denials, Morgan found himself continuously consumed by the desire for the sexual acts that followed a nosfera’s blood-feed. Though he could not prevent the upsurge of lust, he held it at bay, keeping his master at arm’s length and insisting another partner be ready once the feeding was done.
Despite knowing all this, despite his desires, the sight of Jeremy Colbourne’s demanding eyes and waiting lips had Morgan’s groin twitching in anticipation. It shamed him to know he couldn’t settle his feelings into the simplicity he’d known a dozen years earlier.
Colbourne’s strong hand pulled him to the down-filled bedding, sending a shiver through Morgan at the contact. Raw, sensual hunger rolled over him in waves, as the nosferii power of attraction shattered his determination with mere proximity. He swallowed, exerting as much control as he could over his physical reactions.
“You are as unyielding as ever, Holland.”
“Only in one matter, my lord. Is there someone near at hand for—after?”
A sad chuckle answered him. “Yes. My guest waits in my chambers.” Colbourne’s hand grazed Morgan’s neck, sliding sensuously along his throat. “Are you ready, Hostia Aeternus?”
The change in Colbourne’s voice indicated the time had come. Morgan looked at his master, seeing the reddened eyes, the widened pupils. A surge of desire flooded him, and he suppressed the unnatural lust. Still, the yearning to yield and be everything his master asked of him almost overpowered his sense.
Colbourne’s tongue touched his neck. Morgan shuddered, unable to prevent the involuntary reaction.
“I am hungry.” His master’s hot breath accompanied the words, while bared fangs grazed Morgan’s skin. “So hungry.”
The shivers increased tenfold. Morgan felt his control slipping and struggled to hold on to it long enough to complete the Contract. “Then please feed, my lord.” His voice had grown husky as anticipatory tremors took hold of him.
Another caress of Colbourne’s rough tongue drew an exquisite shudder. Such an intimate act, followed by an even more intimate one as the piercing bite of sharp fangs penetrated his neck and withdrew. Hot lips formed a seal around the twin wounds, and Morgan felt his groin tighten with the intense sensation of his master drawing deeply of the crimson flow.
It shouldn’t be this way, Morgan’s hazed brain insisted. Despite this, the lust bubbling up was the same as always, driving him to the brink of madness as he fought the desire. Every time he offered his blood, the yearning to succumb, to yield more than he gave—every time, it grew stronger. He wanted what he denied Lord Colbourne, wanted the carnal touch the Church deemed sinful, longed for what the courts condemned with death.
He trembled at the strengthening draw, fighting the spiraling temptation. The ache in his loins increased with every passing minute, inflamed by the chemicals hidden within the nosferii fangs. His stomach tightened against the feeling as he strove to suppress the exhilaration racing through him, starting with the fanged kiss at his neck.
Morgan shivered as Colbourne laid a hand between his thighs, stroking him, caressing the erection he couldn’t suppress. A groan escaped Morgan as the pleasure increased tenfold.
In a flash, he found himself pinned against the futon. He jerked at the feel of Colbourne’s hand fumbling with the buttons of his breeches. Heat flooded him, running straight from the hot contact to the ecstatic draw of blood from his neck. Hot, shaking with need, he pressed himself against that warm palm, his mind a blaze of passion. Colbourne moaned into Morgan’s neck, sucking harder.
“Touch me…touch me please, Morgan.”
The words slipped into his mind, jarring him from his lust. He shoved hard at the man above him, desperately building a wall in front of the invading thought.
“Get out of my mind!” Frantic, Morgan lunged upward, thrusting Colbourne away from him and wincing at the sudden, tearing sting at his neck. He stumbled forward, pressing his hands to the wounds, attempting to stanch the flow of blood.
He didn’t finish feeding, a portion of his mind whispered. He didn’t finish, and now I’m going to bleed to death.
“Makoto!” Colbourne’s panicked voice beat on Morgan’s ears with the force of a drum. “Makoto! Tasukete!”
Footsteps drummed across the floor as Colbourne’s retainer responded. The room started fading at the edges, and Morgan blinked at the bedding wound about his feet. Arms like steel trapped him, holding him up but keeping him hostage.
“You damn idiot!” Despite the angry hiss of the words, Colbourne’s voice shook. “Hold still.”
Morgan struggled against the iron grip holding him fast, while his hands were wrenched away from his neck. Colbourne’s unyielding grip held his head as the vampire leaned in to bite a second time. The pain shattered the last wall of Morgan’s consciousness, blackness overtaking him at the penetrating sting of his master’s fangs.
* * * *
Jeremy stared at Morgan’s sleeping face, the tremors of angry fear finally subsiding. He’d never before lost control during a feeding. Never. He’d been taking blood from normal humans for more than three centuries, and not once had he ever insinuated his thoughts into an unwilling Host’s mind.
Host. Hostia. The cruel irony of the title struck Jeremy more forcibly than it had ever done before. Hostia, the victim. Centuries before, it had been a word to deny the humanity of those used as nothing more than a food supply. Now, it stood as a title of respect, of importance. Hosts themselves had made it so.
When Morgan had fought Jeremy, rending his flesh beneath Jeremy’s fangs, the true meaning of Hostia had resonated in the terror shining in Morgan’s eyes. It had cut Jeremy to the quick, flaying him with the knowledge of his transgression.
But Morgan had allowed him liberties he’d denied for a dozen years. Jeremy had been pushed over the edge of reason, and he’d reached out, succumbing to a longing he’d thought he’d safely buried.
He stroked the bandages wound about Morgan’s neck. The man’s power of will never ceased to amaze him. The nosferii mind connection had originally been a means of prey control. For anyone to break free and physically pull away, as Morgan had, took strength of mind not commonly found.
A shadow shifted behind him as Makoto entered the room, a laden dinner tray in his hands. Fresh cuts of red meat predominated, lightly seared but rich with the coppery smell of blood.
“Time to eat, danshaku,” the samurai said, setting the tray on the small table by the chair. “You did not feed enough. Please replenish your strength with this.”
Jeremy ignored the dark look, though he did reach for the glass of brandy. “It was sufficient. I do not need to dine early.”
“I respectfully disagree.” Makoto plated a modest portion of beef and fruit. “Will you call for another Host?” Despite the words, Makoto’s voice carried no disapprobation. “It may be weeks before Holland-san is able to meet his Contracted terms.”
“I will be ready when he is, Makoto,” Jeremy answered, loath to consider anyone else. “I can wait.”
“That would be most unwise, danshaku.”
“Perhaps, but I will wait, nonetheless.”
“As you wish, danshaku.” Makoto bowed and left the room, shutting the door noiselessly behind him.
“I have no need of another Host, do I, Morgan?” Jeremy posed the question aloud, more for his own reassurance rather than expecting his Host to wake and answer. “After all, you are my Hostia Aeternus, my Eternal Host.”
Jeremy looked at the brandy in his glass, staring at the deep burgundy liquid. Sweet, yes, the thick fluid was sweet and restorative, but it was not Morgan’s blood, which had called to him from the moment they met.
“No, no need at all.”

First Chapter Friday

Dear Readers and Fans:

First Chapter Friday is here. Never fear! Autumn Montague is treating us to the opening Chapter of her new book, ‘Salva Me’, Book One of the Blood Sworn Series’. Please enjoy.

Peace,

Emily

Excerpt: Chapter One
London, 1816
Blood. Sweet, sweet blood thickened with terror. The girl in his arms fought with weakening desperation, her life rushing away through the crimson tide pulsing from her with each frantic beat of her heart. Intoxicating copper heat coursed across his lips, suffusing him with its nourishing power.
Her moans grew fainter as his poison saturated her body. The exquisite torture of emptying his venom flooded his muscles with godlike power, and he tightened his hold, crushing her fragile, merely human form against him. Her gasp of pain drove a spike of lusty pleasure through him. He released her neck to watch her blood flood across her shoulders to stain her flimsy gown.
A waste perhaps, but he could find another. The silent, horrified plea in her dulling eyes spurred his lust, and he ripped the sodden dress open to bare her cotton stays. A hand batted feebly, a near-unconscious impulse to protect her vanished modesty.
Little whore. She’d no need for modesty with him. He had no interest in her person, not yet. Not until she was at the brink. Then he’d spread her legs and revel in her death throes.
Yes. Yes, that peak of ecstasy neared, her glazed eyes beginning to fade. She drew a hitching breath, and he dropped her limp body to the mud, reaching for the fastenings to his breeches.
The clatter of hooves and creak of heavy wheels broke his concentration, his anticipated pleasure vanishing.
Damn! With a frantic bound, he hurled himself into the velvet black shadow of the alley behind him. Frustrated desire boiled through him as he watched the carriage lurch to a halt. A murderous rage rose, urging him to attack the interlopers. He attempted to quash it, but the slavering beast of his hunger did not want to be assuaged. The girl was his rightful prey, and he would be damned if he would allow mere humans to drive him off. He readied himself, prepared to lunge when the correct moment presented.
The tiniest of breezes stirred the air as the passengers descended from the barouche. It carried the oh-so-faint scent of the intruders, driving him back into the shadows.
“Imbecile!” The word escaped him in a hiss. He peered around, forcing his eyes to see, his ears to hear. As if a veil had been drawn back, he realized he stood almost in the heart of London. How had he followed the girl so far without recognizing his danger?
At least one of the men in the carriage knew him by sight and scent. Worse, if they were to meet, his enemy was duty-bound to kill him without hesitation. He twitched, annoyed, uncertain—wanting his prize but unwilling to face his opponent at this moment.
His hunger stilled, replaced by an urgent need to flee. Later. The time would come, but that time was not now. With a last look at the shuddering girl behind him, he forced more venom to his muscles and shivered in delight as he fled into the night.
* * * *
Morgan Holland clenched his teeth against an impious curse as the carriage lurched to an unexpected halt, knocking his skull against the lacquered wooden panel behind his head. Inertial momentum pitched his companion face forward against the opposite seat with bruising abruptness. Morgan gave the trap door over his head a savage thump with his fist, even as he reached to help the Baron of Colbourne up off the floor.
“Blast it all, I’m fine, Holland,” Colbourne barked.
Morgan smothered a grin at his master’s temper over his bruised dignity. He gestured at the gaping tear across the knee of Colbourne’s superfine trousers. “Perhaps we should return home for a change of clothes before we continue to White’s.”
Colbourne scowled. “Damn. Weston just delivered these this week. I’ll have to commission a new pair.”
“As you say, my lord.” Amusement warred with Morgan’s ringing head as he fought to keep a smirk off his face. Colbourne’s penchant for fine clothes had been a constant source of humor between them.
“Don’t be smug, Holland. Just because you managed to maintain your seat is no reason for a swelled head.”
The dour tone proved too much, and a highly inappropriate snort evaded Morgan’s control. Jeremy Takeshi Yamakawa Colbourne, Fifth Baron of Colbourne, took great pains to appear neat and elegant for any evening revelry. Since his Japanese ancestry drew the derision of his peers, he always maintained a flawless nobleman’s appearance. Morgan felt privileged to be among those few who could jest about the habit without giving offense. Moreover, the unique circumstances of Morgan’s employment had built a bond between them, a bond closer to friendship than master and servant.
A sharp rap at the window halted Colbourne’s next salvo even as he drew breath for the words, undoubtedly to cast unmeant aspersions on Morgan’s ancestry. The words died at the sound of their driver’s frantic rap on the door.
It seemed the difficulty interrupting them was more than a mere rut in the road.
“This needs your attention, my lord,” Toby quavered, fear plain in his voice.
Morgan felt a chill worm its way down his spine, a chill having nothing to do with the damp air outside the carriage door. Colbourne’s handsome face tightened, his grave expression igniting an answering spark of alarm in Morgan. He followed his master into the dank night, and nearly choked.
“Plague of the ages!” Colbourne’s biting exclamation did not quite carry the weight of a bellow, but it might as well have been a shout.
The night air carried a familiar coppery tang, laced with the faint odor of bile. Morgan knew the smell, of tainted blood and death. When he’d first met Colbourne, the man had been covered in the same bloody aroma. Morgan could not see this poor soul, not yet, but the smell left no doubt.
“Nosferatu.” He’d never encountered one, only read in books what they were, what they did. Read, and seen what had happened to his master, the Baron of Colbourne, one of the preeminent nosferii nobles in England. Or anywhere else. The last nosferatu to hunt here had almost cost the country its most needed protector.
Colbourne cast a keen glance his way but said nothing, just stepped around the corner of the carriage for a look at what had bollixed their plans for the evening. Morgan followed, suppressing the urge to gag at the foulness of the air. He tried to keep his strides casual, as though he were walking into yet another evening entertainment, not around the carriage corner for a look at a shredded human being.
Colbourne quirked an eyebrow at Morgan’s calm facade. “No one would think twelve years ago you were a mere tenant farmer, untutored in such things.”
“Even a farmer faces death, my lord.” A true enough statement. After all, Morgan had tended to enough carrion when he was younger: dead livestock, headless chickens after foxes raided the coops. Yet none of his experience prepared him for the putrid aroma hovering over the slumped form in the road. The rank odor was fouler than the oldest carcass he’d ever cleared from his fields. With reluctance, he turned his full attention on the unfortunate victim.
“God!” The exclamation burst from him at the appalling sight that met his eyes.
The brown dirt of the road had turned to mud, glistening with the darkness of spilled blood. A young woman lay trembling in that crimson sludge, her neck savaged and raw. The gaping wounds reeked from the pungent slime coating them.
“Well, she lives, Morgan.” Colbourne sighed, as though the fact was unworthy of celebration. “At least for the present.”
“For the present? Is there nothing to be done?” Morgan could not tear his eyes from the girl. She couldn’t have seen more than sixteen, eighteen years at best.
“From the smell of things, the abomination emptied his venom into her.” Colbourne knelt in the mud, oblivious now to his appearance. “See?” He pointed to the ragged edges of the wounds on the girl’s neck. “There are multiple bites here, some more recent than others.” He laid a gentle, gloved finger near the deepest one. “This bite is hours old, and she is nearly exsanguinated. I am amazed she can still draw breath.”
“Is it too late for a turning?”
That caught Colbourne’s attention. His master stood, searching Morgan’s face for something. Then he sighed, perhaps finding no answer to what he sought.
“It is far too late. At this point, all we can do is ease her passing by treating the wound and dosing her liberally with laudanum. I doubt she’ll notice, but it should be done nonetheless.” He gave Morgan another cryptic glance. “I suppose it’s time to introduce you to the real meaning behind the existence of the Colbourne title. I’ll call you to my study after I have fed. In the meantime, you might want to do some research into turnings. The library has plenty of material for your reading.”
Research? Morgan felt the faintest flush of embarrassment warm his neck. It seemed he’d touched on a sensitive topic. He turned to the coachman. “Toby, get the lap blanket.” He considered for a moment. “And your long coat.” Between the blood, the sodden clothing, and the general mess, two layers should provide both warmth for the young woman and protection for the carriage.
Toby returned, and Morgan watched as Colbourne bundled the girl tightly in the coat, wrapping her head to toe in the blanket. When he lifted the fragile burden, Morgan attempted to assist him, only to receive a flat denial.
“This slime will eat through your hide,” Colbourne reminded. “Don’t forget your teachings, Holland.”
Morgan stepped back, feeling the Compulsion his master laid behind the words. He suppressed a sigh. When Colbourne used such a trick, it usually meant unpleasant instruction ahead.
They rode home at a rapid clip, carriage swaying on its springs at Toby’s urgent pace. Morgan could see the lax bundle in his master’s lap out of the corner of his eye, though he did his utmost not to stare. He focused instead on the adorning crest of the panel immediately behind Colbourne’s head, little good though it did him. Every time he relaxed his control, his eyes flew inexorably to the doomed girl. At some point, he glanced down again and discovered her hitching breaths had ceased.
Colbourne’s dark eyes were shuttered. Even in the dimness of their carriage, distress showed in the line between his brows and the bunched muscles of his jaw. Morgan reached across the gap separating them, called to soothe his master’s pain. Dark lashes lifted, revealing Colbourne’s grief at his failure.
Tonight’s enjoyments were meant to be a prelude in advance of Colbourne’s Contracted feeding; a bit of casual camaraderie to make amends for the awkward strain that had recently come between them. With this appalling discovery, the emotional toll on them both could hinder the process. Worse still, it might encourage Colbourne to postpone the feeding.
A tinge of red outlined those dark eyes. “Don’t worry, Holland. I’ll have myself under control by the appointed time.”
“I am certain you will, my lord,” Morgan answered, keeping his voice level. “I worry more for my control than for yours.”
A wistful smile touched Colbourne’s lips. “Your iron will? It will never waver, regardless of my desires.” The smile vanished. “Nonetheless, we will bury this poor child before we begin, Holland. I owe her that much, at least.”
* * * *
At the expected time, Morgan stood outside the sanguis cubiculum, irresolute. After a moment, he drew a deep breath and opened the heavy door enough to slip into the dim room. Hoping to recover his usual calm, he looked around at the comforts scattered about the feeding chamber. His master’s ancestry held full sway here, unlike any other room within Colbourne Manor. In the center, where the Contract always took place, a pile of soft bedding dominated. Oriental basins and water pitchers flanked the futon, with folded cloths of soft linen laid neatly alongside. Wax-paper lanterns lit the room with softened candlelight, casting shadows over the ornate screens and furnishings in the corners.
Colbourne waited on the futon, his white shirt open at the neck. Shadows from the flickering lanterns enhanced his Japanese ancestry, drawing attention to the faint epicanthic folds and the graceful arch of his brow. It presented a strong contrast to the British height and strong jaw, but Colbourne’s nosferii nature blended the two into pleasing harmony. Altogether attractive, sensual, and dangerous for Morgan’s heart, given what usually passed after a feeding.
Over the past twelve years, Morgan had gradually become accustomed to his master’s bisexuality, though with difficulty. It was a hallmark of the nosferii, but as Colbourne had said, Morgan had once been an untutored farmer. The Church of England considered such relationships unnatural and anathema to any God-fearing man. To be accused—worse, to be convicted—bore the potential for death. Earlier this year, Lord Byron himself had fled from England, fallen from his lauded pedestal and hounded by rumors of sodomy. Despite the political immunity granted by the kings of England to the nosferii, what a choice it proved: declare yourself attracted to the same sex, or declare yourself a vampire.
Yet for all the moralizing of his past, for all the strength he put into his denials, Morgan found himself continuously consumed by the desire for the sexual acts that followed a nosfera’s blood-feed. Though he could not prevent the upsurge of lust, he held it at bay, keeping his master at arm’s length and insisting another partner be ready once the feeding was done.
Despite knowing all this, despite his desires, the sight of Jeremy Colbourne’s demanding eyes and waiting lips had Morgan’s groin twitching in anticipation. It shamed him to know he couldn’t settle his feelings into the simplicity he’d known a dozen years earlier.
Colbourne’s strong hand pulled him to the down-filled bedding, sending a shiver through Morgan at the contact. Raw, sensual hunger rolled over him in waves, as the nosferii power of attraction shattered his determination with mere proximity. He swallowed, exerting as much control as he could over his physical reactions.
“You are as unyielding as ever, Holland.”
“Only in one matter, my lord. Is there someone near at hand for—after?”
A sad chuckle answered him. “Yes. My guest waits in my chambers.” Colbourne’s hand grazed Morgan’s neck, sliding sensuously along his throat. “Are you ready, Hostia Aeternus?”
The change in Colbourne’s voice indicated the time had come. Morgan looked at his master, seeing the reddened eyes, the widened pupils. A surge of desire flooded him, and he suppressed the unnatural lust. Still, the yearning to yield and be everything his master asked of him almost overpowered his sense.
Colbourne’s tongue touched his neck. Morgan shuddered, unable to prevent the involuntary reaction.
“I am hungry.” His master’s hot breath accompanied the words, while bared fangs grazed Morgan’s skin. “So hungry.”
The shivers increased tenfold. Morgan felt his control slipping and struggled to hold on to it long enough to complete the Contract. “Then please feed, my lord.” His voice had grown husky as anticipatory tremors took hold of him.
Another caress of Colbourne’s rough tongue drew an exquisite shudder. Such an intimate act, followed by an even more intimate one as the piercing bite of sharp fangs penetrated his neck and withdrew. Hot lips formed a seal around the twin wounds, and Morgan felt his groin tighten with the intense sensation of his master drawing deeply of the crimson flow.
It shouldn’t be this way, Morgan’s hazed brain insisted. Despite this, the lust bubbling up was the same as always, driving him to the brink of madness as he fought the desire. Every time he offered his blood, the yearning to succumb, to yield more than he gave—every time, it grew stronger. He wanted what he denied Lord Colbourne, wanted the carnal touch the Church deemed sinful, longed for what the courts condemned with death.
He trembled at the strengthening draw, fighting the spiraling temptation. The ache in his loins increased with every passing minute, inflamed by the chemicals hidden within the nosferii fangs. His stomach tightened against the feeling as he strove to suppress the exhilaration racing through him, starting with the fanged kiss at his neck.
Morgan shivered as Colbourne laid a hand between his thighs, stroking him, caressing the erection he couldn’t suppress. A groan escaped Morgan as the pleasure increased tenfold.
In a flash, he found himself pinned against the futon. He jerked at the feel of Colbourne’s hand fumbling with the buttons of his breeches. Heat flooded him, running straight from the hot contact to the ecstatic draw of blood from his neck. Hot, shaking with need, he pressed himself against that warm palm, his mind a blaze of passion. Colbourne moaned into Morgan’s neck, sucking harder.
“Touch me…touch me please, Morgan.”
The words slipped into his mind, jarring him from his lust. He shoved hard at the man above him, desperately building a wall in front of the invading thought.
“Get out of my mind!” Frantic, Morgan lunged upward, thrusting Colbourne away from him and wincing at the sudden, tearing sting at his neck. He stumbled forward, pressing his hands to the wounds, attempting to stanch the flow of blood.
He didn’t finish feeding, a portion of his mind whispered. He didn’t finish, and now I’m going to bleed to death.
“Makoto!” Colbourne’s panicked voice beat on Morgan’s ears with the force of a drum. “Makoto! Tasukete!”
Footsteps drummed across the floor as Colbourne’s retainer responded. The room started fading at the edges, and Morgan blinked at the bedding wound about his feet. Arms like steel trapped him, holding him up but keeping him hostage.
“You damn idiot!” Despite the angry hiss of the words, Colbourne’s voice shook. “Hold still.”
Morgan struggled against the iron grip holding him fast, while his hands were wrenched away from his neck. Colbourne’s unyielding grip held his head as the vampire leaned in to bite a second time. The pain shattered the last wall of Morgan’s consciousness, blackness overtaking him at the penetrating sting of his master’s fangs.
* * * *
Jeremy stared at Morgan’s sleeping face, the tremors of angry fear finally subsiding. He’d never before lost control during a feeding. Never. He’d been taking blood from normal humans for more than three centuries, and not once had he ever insinuated his thoughts into an unwilling Host’s mind.
Host. Hostia. The cruel irony of the title struck Jeremy more forcibly than it had ever done before. Hostia, the victim. Centuries before, it had been a word to deny the humanity of those used as nothing more than a food supply. Now, it stood as a title of respect, of importance. Hosts themselves had made it so.
When Morgan had fought Jeremy, rending his flesh beneath Jeremy’s fangs, the true meaning of Hostia had resonated in the terror shining in Morgan’s eyes. It had cut Jeremy to the quick, flaying him with the knowledge of his transgression.
But Morgan had allowed him liberties he’d denied for a dozen years. Jeremy had been pushed over the edge of reason, and he’d reached out, succumbing to a longing he’d thought he’d safely buried.
He stroked the bandages wound about Morgan’s neck. The man’s power of will never ceased to amaze him. The nosferii mind connection had originally been a means of prey control. For anyone to break free and physically pull away, as Morgan had, took strength of mind not commonly found.
A shadow shifted behind him as Makoto entered the room, a laden dinner tray in his hands. Fresh cuts of red meat predominated, lightly seared but rich with the coppery smell of blood.
“Time to eat, danshaku,” the samurai said, setting the tray on the small table by the chair. “You did not feed enough. Please replenish your strength with this.”
Jeremy ignored the dark look, though he did reach for the glass of brandy. “It was sufficient. I do not need to dine early.”
“I respectfully disagree.” Makoto plated a modest portion of beef and fruit. “Will you call for another Host?” Despite the words, Makoto’s voice carried no disapprobation. “It may be weeks before Holland-san is able to meet his Contracted terms.”
“I will be ready when he is, Makoto,” Jeremy answered, loath to consider anyone else. “I can wait.”
“That would be most unwise, danshaku.”
“Perhaps, but I will wait, nonetheless.”
“As you wish, danshaku.” Makoto bowed and left the room, shutting the door noiselessly behind him.
“I have no need of another Host, do I, Morgan?” Jeremy posed the question aloud, more for his own reassurance rather than expecting his Host to wake and answer. “After all, you are my Hostia Aeternus, my Eternal Host.”
Jeremy looked at the brandy in his glass, staring at the deep burgundy liquid. Sweet, yes, the thick fluid was sweet and restorative, but it was not Morgan’s blood, which had called to him from the moment they met.
“No, no need at all.”

Some (Whale) food for thought.

Dear Readers and Fans:

In honor of our orcha and whale friends, please check out the following:

Killer Whale Attack ( Documentary ) *
Who would win in a battle between the orca, the largest of the dolphin family, and a Great White shark. And, more importantly, why would that animal win?

*I’ve posted only the title on my website because it’s illegal to have a link to a video without the express permission of that video’s creator. I don’t have that permission. Yet.

Peace,
Emily

Thursday Teaser

Dear Readers and Fans:

Please enjoy the following Teaser from my upcoming work, ‘Hunter’s Claim’. Thoughts and feedback welcomed.

Love,

Emily

Excerpt: A strong, well-remembered hand closed around Charlie’s automatically outstretched right. Then the man before Charlie pushed that hand aside and grasped Charlie’s left, white cane and all.

Charlie laughed as lean, muscular arms pulled him close and tightened around his back. It was Luis. His nose had been right.

“I was planning to see you here,” Luis whispered in Spanish, his voice richer than the thrum of the best-played bass. “But I didn’t think it would be so soon.”

Charlie drank in Luis’s scent, relishing how Luis held him. Then he pulled back slightly, though he was still safe in Luis’s embrace. “It’s good to see you.” That was an understatement, and he was hard-pressed not to resume the kisses he’d run from in March. He had no right to such a warm welcome, and for a breath his heart lodged in his throat.

Then another smell–a stench compared to Luis’s heady aroma–invaded the library, and Charlie stepped away completely. He held up one finger. “Un momento.”

Luis retreated several paces, and Charlie blinked at the psychic vampire’s discretion. Luis hadn’t possessed anything close to circumspection or respect for duty when they’d worked together in Tampa.

Charlie went to the library doors, meaning to close them, but the werewolf he’d smelled stood before him. He made the conscious switch to English, realizing he must be overwhelmed by Luis’s presence if the change needed to be willed rather than instinctive. Or maybe I’m intoxicated again. As he’d been when he and Luis had tumbled into bed for a single, blissful hour. Maybe it wasn’t the Lady Lavender drinks that got me drunk in March. It could’ve been Luis.

“Yes?” he asked, pushing for the authority he didn’t technically have here but that he should. If only.

“I came to see if everything’s all right,” said the female wolf.

Charlie blessed his quick ears and his quicker memory. “Thank you, Cassandra, but Agent Delgado and I are fine.” It had crossed his mind to say satisfied or more than comfortable. Five minutes in Luis’s presence, and I’m ready to throw in all the hard-earned camouflage. “He’s here regarding the peace summit.”

“Stop talking,” Luis whispered in Charlie’s mind. “She’s intimidated by you already. Don’t spoil it.”

That was why Charlie had fled Luis. The psychic vampire couldn’t be trusted not to spy.

Or feed.

“Get out of my head.” Aloud he said, “Thank you for your diligence, Cassandra.” He reentered the library, closing the doors in her face. He crossed to Luis, and the two of them sank onto the leather sofa. “Thanks for telling me, but ask my permission next time before you jump into my thoughts.” As if such a reminder would keep Luis in check. Charlie had watched, back in March, as the psychic vampire tapped indiscriminately into people’s heads.

Luis had pissed off Agent Tavery, when angering a water dragon wasn’t wise. He’d also barged into an unshielded human’s mind in the name of doing his job.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful for your insight,” Charlie continued in Spanish, in case Cassandra still lingered by the door. “But I’d appreciate it if you’d stay out of this pack’s minds.” Now that was interesting. He’d planned to say my pack’s. What had changed his mind?

“I’ll be good.”

Even though Luis sounded repentant, Charlie didn’t believe. Still, it was a step in the right direction. So he spoke more gently. “They’re all suspicious. How did you handle getting in here?”

“I hid my eyeteeth when I smiled. And of course I sent out a general impression–not into anyone’s mind specifically–that I’m harmless.”

If Luis hadn’t been a SearchLight agent, such things would be accepted as a matter of course. SearchLight’s employees were held to a higher standard, however, and Charlie wondered how Luis had risen to such a high position–second in command of his department–with such a slipshod modus operandi. Then, remembering that Luis was a tracker and that trackers were allowed many freedoms, Charlie set aside his frustration. It felt too good to see Luis. There would be time for chewing the younger magical creature out. Surely Luis would give him plenty of opportunities.

So Charlie smiled a little to hide his feelings. “Since when have you known how to manipulate werewolves?”

Luis took Charlie’s white cane and set it aside. Then he began massaging Charlie’s left wrist and forearm methodically.

Charlie did his best not to melt under the ministrations. Except for that one night, he hadn’t let Luis touch him much beyond a handshake. Because he was attracted to Luis, who was a psychic vampire, a Tampa-based SearchLight tracker, and fifteen years Charlie’s junior. Of those three reasons, that last was the least important. Age hardly mattered between most magical creatures, who tended to be essentially immortal. Even though Charlie thought he’d gotten his father’s long-lived genes–he based this on the fact that he still looked twenty-five rather than his forty-two years–he couldn’t be sure that applied to a half-and-half.

He smirked mentally at that term. Besides the name “half-and-half,” his kind were called “creamers” and “halfies,” not to mention a few more disrespectful nouns.

Luis said, “I’ve commanded werewolf trackers a time or two, although it’s usually Ethan and me, not me versus five other trackers and twenty-five werewolves with their own ideas and prejudices.” He laughed quietly. “I’m scared to death, but it will be all right. The team I’ve been given is competent.” He nodded toward the closed door, the movement of his head surely exaggerated for Charlie’s near-sighted benefit. “What’s her problem anyway?”

“She’s– It’s not a problem. She’s protective and curious in accordance with her species. Like a certain psychic vampire I know.” Charlie groaned, working to keep the sound quiet. “Stop, please. That feels good.”

“That’s a contradiction.”

Charlie pulled away. If he didn’t maintain some sort of distance, he’d lose his concentration completely. “Which part? That she’s–”

“That you want me to stop because it feels good.” Luis caught Charlie’s wrist between firm palms and resumed the massage.

And it was purposeful misunderstandings like this that helped me ignore your blatant desires back in March. Not to mention mine. Still, he couldn’t pull away yet, and Luis’s closeness drew the truth from his lips. “I’ve missed you.” He used the fingers of his right hand to trace Luis’s stubbly jaw. He stroked the psychic vampire’s long hair back, relishing its soft texture. In many ways, Luis was a god.

In too many ways, he knows his effect on others and uses it to his advantage.

Luis caught Charlie’s hand, kissed the palm lightly, and let him go. “Me too.”

Lured by Luis’s voice, Charlie closed the distance until he held the psychic vampire.

Charlie felt Luis’s heart pound and knew his pulse was just as high. Do you know how badly I want to give in to this and kiss you?

That thought brought Charlie up short. To kiss a psychic vampire was to take their virginity. Not sexually, as for humans and most other magical creatures, but to take their soul sanctity. Perhaps Luis had given that up long ago, but Charlie couldn’t be sure. And even losing one’s virginity in the more well-known way didn’t make one a slut.

Charlie drew back, leaving only his left arm, which Luis still seemed to want to massage, in the psychic vampire’s power. He refocused, working to remember why Luis had come here. “Who put you in charge of so many trackers and civilians?”

“Agent Weinberg.”

Luis’s frustration showed in his voice, and Charlie laughed. “She is a meddlesome pain in the ass, isn’t she?”

Luis didn’t relinquish Charlie’s hand, and he managed to sound businesslike as well as annoyed. “That’s a polite way of putting it. In her seventeen pages of written orders, she commanded me to make Firos William’s acquaintance first thing. I take it he’s not home?”

Strange how Agent Weinberg, with all her preparatory statements, verbal and written, hadn’t mentioned to Charlie that Luis would be here. “He’s not.” Although it took you long enough to get to the point of your visit. This thought was unfair, so Charlie didn’t share it. Besides, he might not have gotten to enjoy more than a few seconds with Luis if he’d announced earlier that his father wasn’t here. “You get his erstwhile son instead. I’m here at SearchLight’s request. As their long arm of the law, so to speak. And of course as a physical reminder of SearchLight’s interest in peace.”

“Madre de Dios.” Luis laughed. “Apparently those words have a habit of jumping from mouth to mouth.”

Charlie raised his eyebrows, but it had never been like Luis to share inside jokes, so he didn’t press. “What do you need to ask? I’ll do my best to answer.”

“My team’s assembled. Our delegation’s all here. We’re staying at the Palace Hotel several blocks south of here.”

“Were there any squabbles over your delegation taking the smaller accommodations?”

“Not once I pointed out how historic and beautiful the Palace is.” Luis’s teeth gleamed in a quick, sun-kissed smile.

Charlie’s heart constricted, and he fumbled his right hand up to Luis’s face again, needing desperately to touch him, to know this wasn’t a dream. “Really?”

Luis laughed softly but said nothing.

The straight werewolf delegation had claimed the Merrik Hotel in downtown Buffalo. Because they had more clout–and more money, for the most part–they got what they wanted. The LGBT delegation had been relegated to the Palace on Delaware Avenue, a beautiful old building with historic ties to the city. But it was significantly smaller. “Tell me the truth. I knew you possessed a silver tongue, but that’s a bit much.” Yes. I remember your silver tongue. Luis had licked him all over with that talented muscle.

Luis continued the massage, moving on to Charlie’s forearm. “I’m not quite that good. I pointed out how much easier the Palace would be to defend, and the eighteen werewolves with good sense shouted down the ones without. With a little help from Ethan.”

That’s the second time he’s mentioned this man Ethan. Vaguely Charlie remembered a short, black-haired werewolf who had accompanied Luis to the Tavery-Morrison wedding back in March. It was after the wedding that Luis and Charlie had slept together. “Is Ethan your second-in-command on this mission?”

“He’s my partner. We’ve worked together for almost six years now.”

Partner? Charlie dragged his mind past that word. Romantic partner? He repressed a stab of jealousy. Of course, he thought. Ethan had joined Luis at the reception after Mark Tavery’s wedding, so it made sense the psychic vampire and werewolf were romantically involved. They hadn’t been “together” enough to keep Luis from wanting to jump Charlie.

And vampires, psychic or otherwise, tended to have many sexual partners at one time.

Charlie forced himself to listen as Luis continued.

“Ethan’s different than anyone I know. I’ve never met a werewolf with so little interest in leading a werewolf pack yet who has so much ability to convince alphas that his way is the right way.”

That is special. Even if Luis sounded half admiring and half in love.

Charlie’s heart ached. He’d never know the joy of working with a werewolf like that. He hated the notion of being someone else’s beta or gamma, but that was the only way he’d become a member of a pack. LGBT wolves accepted psychically able humans–and halfies–into their packs. But no pack would ever follow a human, half or otherwise. “Ethan must be incredibly loyal.”

Luis leaned close. “I don’t want to talk about Ethan, though.” He spoke with a sultry, forget-the-world, love-me voice that made Charlie break out in goose bumps.

As Luis moved even nearer, Charlie stared at his lips. They were thick and slightly pinker than the rest of Luis’s olive complexion. Charlie struggled to think clearly. This time he failed. Using one finger, he traced the shape of Luis’s smile.

Luis kissed Charlie’s finger before briefly sucking the digit into his mouth.

Charlie shuddered.

“I know we can’t do anything here and now,” Luis whispered after releasing Charlie’s finger. “But is there a time, maybe later today, when you can get away?”

The thought of escaping this house, where he had to be so polite and he was watched all the time, made Charlie’s heart lighter than it had been since Agent Weinberg roped him into this assignment. But then he thought of what excuse he could possibly use to leave his post. None presented itself, and he knew any reason would come off self-serving.

Besides. As much as he enjoyed Luis’s body, Luis’s touch, he couldn’t trust Luis to stay out of his mind. Sexual attraction knew nothing of trust, but at this point in his life, Charlie wanted more than a series of now-and-then tumbles.

He sat back, folding his hands in his lap. “I can’t.”

Luis sighed. “I understand.”

Moving past the disappointment he heard in Luis’s voice, Charlie asked, “Is there anything else you need to tell me?”

Luis drew back far enough to be out of Charlie’s ready sight range. “Probably nothing you don’t already know or suspect.” He shifted forward again. None too discreetly, he pressed his knee against Charlie’s thigh. “Both sides have agreed to SearchLight’s presence, but there weren’t enough werewolf trackers willing to protect the LGBT wolves. My security team’s made up of enough psychically strong agents to defend, or defend against, the twenty-five wolves we’re guarding.”

That caught and held Charlie’s attention. “Do you expect those you’ve brought to cause problems?”

Luis laughed softly. “Werewolves are as hotheaded as vampires. There will be many disagreements at this peace summit. And telling alpha wolves to run one way or another in response to danger may prove to be like telling a toddler to stop eating things off the ground.”

Charlie nodded. “True.”

“Ethan and Agent Stanford are the only werewolves among my team. The other members are fae, although I don’t know their specific species.”

Luis sounded annoyed at that idea. Charlie had become a professor at SearchLight Academy during a time when the fae–elementals, fairies, and many others–were encouraged to keep their species private if they wished. However, because not knowing often caused misunderstandings and hurt feelings from fae and nonfae alike, the academy had started a new trend: when dealing with other magical creatures, tell your species no matter what you are, and have confidence that others will treat you fairly. That policy had only gone into effect at the academy last semester.

Charlie considered the news of three nature spirits working together. Surely a water elemental, another of air, and a tree sprite could act as one if given the opportunity. But how would they deal with two werewolves and a psychic vampire?

Luis said, “Not a single heterosexual werewolf could be bribed enough to work with my team.”

Charlie buried the familiar frustration that rose in response to Luis’s words. “SearchLight is a model of acceptance, but that doesn’t mean every employee can be taught the difference between honoring traditions and thinking for themselves.” Aware of his duty as a language and cultural expert, he added, “And would a single LGBT wolf serve as a security guard for the straight wolves?”

Luis made a slightly choked but amused noise. “No. Ethan would have volunteered, but I wouldn’t allow it.” He gripped Charlie’s hands. “I’ve talked about everything I came here to say. Mostly I wanted to make Firos William’s acquaintance before tomorrow. Failing that for now, I’d like to steal a moment of your time. Or I could steal you.”

Too tempted by that suggestion for comfort, Charlie stood up. “No.” He couldn’t smell Cassandra or any of the other wolves who’d stayed behind, but he didn’t need that warning. His time with Luis hadn’t ended well in March, and it would play out less well now that August had come with increased responsibilities for both of them.

“But, Charlie–”

“Stay out of my head, please.” He reinforced his shields, bringing them up to the strength they’d often been when he and Luis had worked together in March. Not that it was Luis he’d guarded himself against back then. The psychic vampire was no real threat. Not to Charlie, whose telepathic talents rivaled those of everyone he’d ever met. Luis was just a horny kid.

I’m horny too. Now that he’s so close… Charlie clamped down on that thought, and when he spoke, he did so as much for himself as for Luis. “We’re both here in an official capacity, and neither of us can afford the distraction.” He held out his hand. “May I have my cane?” He cursed the formality of his tone the moment he’d spoken, and once he felt the rubber grip between his fingers, he said, “Thanks. I’m sorry we can’t talk about this now, but we can talk. Later.”
Copyright © Emily Carrington

Thursday Teaser

Hello Readers and Fans:

For this week’s Thursday Teaser, I am including an excerpt from ‘Dragon in Training 3’ for you to ponder and enjoy. What follows is the opening chapter. Feedback welcome!

Peace,

Emily

Dragon in Training 3

Chapter 1:
Mark didn’t relax once the front door of the condo was closed. He backed his lover’s quieter car out of their driveway in the predawn shadows, turned right, and escaped their court at a crawl.

Please keep meditating until I’m on the freeway. Once he was there, five short minutes would take him to the bay.

White-knuckled and hunched to make his five-ten frame all but disappear, Mark nudged the Prius onto the freeway. Only then did he accelerate, scowling when the tiny vehicle didn’t shoot forward, but seemed to putt-putt-putt like a run-down Chevy.

“You’d think Luke had the eighties Pontiac.”

“This serves my purposes. It’s good for the environment, and I don’t have a lead talon like a certain water dragon I know.”

Mark jumped, and the car swerved.

Luke, casual as a stretching cat, reached over from the passenger seat and steadied the wheel. “Do we need to switch places?”

Fuck. Mark shot a guilty glance at his genie lover. “How long have you been here?”

“Less than thirty seconds. I heard you leave, though. At first I thought you were just going for your morning run, but when I stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the air, I saw my car was gone.” He patted the dashboard. “You must have been desperate for me not to hear you if you stooped to taking this lunch box.”

“So you’re a mind reader too?”

Luke raised one golden eyebrow. “No, that’s just always how you think of her. Face it, my Mark. Your spirit is like your dragon form: eight feet tall, anxious to blow fire, and not meant for confined spaces.”

He winced. “We’ll go home.”

“Nope. I’m curious to see where you were sneaking off to.” Luke rested a hand on Mark’s thigh. “Please? I promise a reward if you’ll indulge my curiosity.” Using his other hand, the genie drew a line from Mark’s chin, down his throat, pausing at his pulse point, and then continuing all the way to his groin.

Mouth watering, Mark couldn’t speak at first. He nodded and covered the hand on his thigh. “Will you promise to stay out of the water?”

“Why did you need to sneak out to go swimming?”

He stared straight ahead. “It’s a little more than that. Will you stay out?”

Luke paused. “All right. I’m not a great swimmer in any case.”

Less than ten minutes later Mark dived beneath the night waves, losing himself in the dark and danger of Tampa Bay in the last hour before false dawn began to lighten the sky. He’d planned to go in naked, but how could he explain that to Luke? So as soon as he could, he lost his trunks, saying a silent apology to the ocean at large for adding one more bit of garbage to its great waters.

Then he changed his human guise for dragon scales.

At once, his sight shifted to black-and-white with overtones of night-vision goggles, and he rolled over in the water, which seemed ten degrees colder, relishing its slinky caress.

A small school of fish shot past him then, and his instincts took over. He loosed a roar that stunned a quarter of his prey. He swallowed those and then made for the rest, circling them to keep them together. At times like this, when he couldn’t fight the monster inside him anymore, the hunt became as much about the capture as about the eating.

When he was sated, he headed in, wondering what kind of excuse Luke would accept this time.
* * * *
Luke trudged up the warehouse steps to the second floor. When his supervisor in the Miscellaneous Magical Creatures Department had assigned him this detail, he had jumped at the chance to get out of the office. Now, when it was far too late to turn back, he was having second thoughts.

“You’ll enjoy this,” his supervisor had said. “Inventory checks aren’t usually a pleasure, but I know you’re interested in everything out of the ordinary.” He’d chuckled as he urged Luke toward the office door. “The head office wouldn’t be sending the executive secretary if this might not prove to be something big.” He’d opened the door. “You’ll meet Mr. Snyder in Warehouse C, first floor.”

Now Luke followed Dan Snyder across the second floor, feeling the press of magic all around him. It was like a wet blanket full of jumping spiders. Whatever had drawn them here would prove to be interesting.

And possibly dangerous.

“It’s just an inconsistency between the computer and what the cleaners saw on the shelves when they came through here last week,” Dan said, his voice tight. “I wouldn’t have brought anyone else, but it was suggested someone…magical…should be with me to tell me anything I couldn’t see for myself.”

“It’s a magical powder keg in here,” Luke said for the third time since he and the executive secretary had entered the building. “Maybe you should—”

Dan stopped walking; his shoulders were tense. “Maybe you should remember I’m not Mark, I don’t think you’re a god, and I don’t really give a shit what you think. If we’re in real danger, I’m sure this”—the thing in his hand reminded Luke of a magic spectrometer—“will tell us when we need to leave.”

The sound of his lover’s name on the other man’s lips froze Luke’s tongue.

Dan glanced back at Luke, and his expression was slightly apologetic. “Let’s just get on with this.” He strode toward the back wall.

If you insist. He followed the slightly taller man to a row of shelves, each bearing its own label.

Dan stopped before a large bay, screening it from Luke’s view. “This was supposed to be a collection of journals written by a ninth-century Irish monk. Obviously, it’s not.”

Luke stepped up beside him. The clay urn stood nearly two feet high and perhaps a foot and a half wide. Stark pictures of fantastic animals covered the entire circumference. Luke saw a lion, a flock of birds, and a hydra along the curve facing him. Greek characters ran around the rim.

“The wax seal looks broken,” Dan said, crouching so that he was eye level with the image of the lion. “I think whatever was in here is long gone.”

The sensation of spiders jumping all over his skin changed to a feeling of the arachnids crawling up his spine in a single, slow column. “I don’t think it’s gone.” He frowned at the Greek letters. This exact configuration looked familiar, which made no sense. He could translate Greek, but looking at these letters made him almost feel like he was looking at a badly composed sentence in English.

Dan said, “Help me lift this out.”

He really didn’t want to touch the thing, but he’d rather be close in case the genie inside woke up. Because the magic-signature was clear. The genie inside the clay pot was more powerful than any being Luke had ever encountered.

Hating his nervousness, Luke helped Dan lift the urn out of its bay, carry it several feet from the wall, and set it down. He circled the urn at a distance, avoiding Dan, who had knelt on the floor. Luke looked for the beginning of the Greek statement. He circled twice, frowning when the translation danced out of his reach.

His cell phone vibrated, and he plucked it out of his pocket, opening it without glancing at the caller ID. He frowned at one etched letter, trying to decipher it. “Hello?”

Mark’s voice was tense. “What’s wrong?”

Oh please. Not this again. “Aren’t three months of false alarms enough?” Although he had to admit Mark might actually be right this time. “I’m okay. I’m in Warehouse C checking out an inventory mistake.” He frowned deeply as he made another revolution, finally putting the words on the urn together: For mine are the labors of Hercules.

His blood froze.

“Something’s wrong, Luke. I can hear it in your voice,” Mark said.

Dan grunted, drawing Luke’s attention.

The man was holding a penknife and chipping away at the wax.

“Dan, don’t—”

The secretary ignored him.

Mark all but shouted, “Luke—”

Luke grabbed Dan by the back of his shirt as the urn’s top rattled. “Mark, call—”

The magical world exploded. Luke staggered back, still trying to drag Dan with him. Pain bloomed in his chest and temples, and he tried again to make his lover understand. “Mark—”

Speech failed him, and a moment later his body did the same. With a low moan, he passed out.
Copyright © Emily Carrington

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