Friday, December 1, 2006

A Winter's Dare by Leigh Ellwood

A Winter's Dare by Leigh Ellwood
December, 2006 - 978-1-59426-569-3
$2 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!
Author's backlist: Leigh Ellwood

Kate Robeson's husky, film noir voice carried as gaily as possible through the truncated ground floor of Dare House. "Athena," she seemed to sing in the stale air, scented with ancient book dust and faded daisies, "that's enough! Behave now."

Kate stood in the kitchen of the oldest house in Dareville, now a museum preserving the legacy of a town that had withstood two wars, as well as that of the mistress who called it home during the second, and not necessarily civil, one. The plastic-wrapped loaf of wheat bread, one of a few anachronisms in the otherwise authentically appointed room, rolled to one side at Kate's feet, untouched. By human hands or feet, anyway.

Kate shook her head. Athena was going to be the death of her, she just knew it. Perhaps, though, that was the girl's plan. Perhaps she wanted more permanent company than Kate could give.

"What are you shouting about now?" The voice of Kate's mother Marlene arrived mere seconds before the shapely, sixtyish woman flounced into the kitchen, swinging a heavy purse onto a nearby butcher's block. The table's long, varnished legs cried out in response to weight it was no longer accustomed to supporting. Kate cringed and had to wonder why her mother insisted on packing like Lewis and/or Clark just for a brief excursion into town.

Marlene carried on without skipping a beat, regarding their quaint surroundings with a disapproving gaze. Her nose wrinkled and her eyes squinted, as though willing away a layer of dust that threatened to coat her skin. "Honestly, Kate," she said, "you ought to get rid of the cat. You don't need animals running around here. What if it decides to sharpen its claws on one of Polly Dare's handmade heirloom quilts?"

With a labored sigh, Kate swooped down and collected the bread with an open palm. "For the last time, Ma, there's no cat in the museum. How many times do I have to tell you that? Even if there was one, those quilts are encased in acrylic frames. No amount of cat scratching will get to them."

Marlene shrugged. "I'm surprised you don't have a cat, as much as you try to keep Dare House authentic. Didn't Polly Dare have a cat? For all we know, those celebrated quilts have been soaked through with cat piss for all these years. Preserved forever behind acrylic."

Kate rolled her eyes upward, as though wishing for x-ray vision to verify the intact cleanliness of the aforementioned quilts, lest her mother suggest extracting DNA from the threads to clone Civil War cats for fun and profit. She tried not to fist the soft bread slices into a plastic-covered ball, though she found the gesture too therapeutic to dismiss.

Carefully, breathing sharply through her nose, Kate extracted two slices for her lunch and replaced the loaf in its cupboard. Only when the door squeaked shut did she deign speak to her mother. "Polly had a beagle, named Aristotle," she said calmly, in the pleasant hostess voice used to lecture school groups and other interested parties who requested the full guided tour. "I was addressing Athena, the house servant."

"When did you hire an assistant?" Marlene reached for a potato chip from the open bag by Kate's sandwich. "And why would you call her something like that?"

"Polly's house servant, Ma!" For once since her appointment as curator of Dare House, Kate was relieved to know the place was devoid of guests. She knew damn well her mother liked to yank her chain, closet sadist that she was; anyone unaware of this practiced comedy routine might see a harried woman yelling at her dementia-suffering mother.

To be certain, Marlene Robeson was anything but senile, yet Kate braced for the inevitable implication by Marlene that the disease had come to claim her spinster child at the ripe old age of thirty-six.

"My own daughter, hearing and seeing things," Marlene muttered. "No wonder you're still single."

"I do hear Athena, Ma. Her ghost haunts this house. How do you think the bread got on the floor?" Athena indeed haunted Dare House, it was hardly delusion on Kate's part. Three separate investigations by different experts in the parapsychological field had confirmed this over the past two years, after Kate's initial suspicions prompted her to research the possibility. Luckily, Athena's spirit was a playful one, interested only in attention as it saw fit.

Skeptics like Marlene, however, saw the ghost only as a ploy to attract more business. Kate could only wish for such a boom. Children only visited the museum by virtue of field trips, and hardly seemed impressed with the stories of Athena's invisible antics. Apparently, the gentle ghost didn't bring the "shock and awe" kids preferred to find in video games, and hence behaved when tourists visited. Kate likened her to the cartoon frog she adored as a child, the one that sang and danced in private yet merely croaked in the company of others.

"How did the bread get on the floor?" Marlene echoed. "Because I have a clumsy daughter."

"Because Athena pushed it off the counter to get my attention." Kate had yet to actually hear Athena outside of the occasional rustled curtain and moved object, but imagined the ghost of the young black woman now laughed at the trouble she caused.

"Because my clumsy daughter is also befuddled."

"Is there a reason you're here bothering me?" Kate slapped her sandwich together and nearly bit the whole thing in half. A line of detached crust hung from her lip, and she chewed it slowly into her mouth.

Marlene eyed the ravenous gesture with some amusement. "Well, I had come to take you to lunch."

Kate waved the remnants of peanut butter and jelly under her mother's nose.

"Then at least close up early," Marlene pleaded. "Nobody's going to come today. There's a foot of snow on the ground, and everybody who didn't have the good sense to stay at home is at the school or at Jake's."

"I can't. I need to be here." The temptation to leave early was strong, especially with the annual Dareville Winter Festival going on at Dareville Primary Academy and the nearby grocery. Two minutes alone with her mother had Kate dying for a glass of Virginia-made Chardonnay, or whatever Jake would be serving from his inventory.

One glass? Kate chuckled to herself, reconsidering the thought. With her mother around, try twelve.

"You need to be there, socializing with real people."

"You mean men." What would be the point in that? Any man in Dareville worth the trouble was already married. All that remained were the smattering of high school graduates who had yet to move—and Kate hardly fancied herself the Mrs. Robinson type—and senior citizens about two minutes away from being able to date Athena.

"I mean people who are breathing. You spend all day in this dreary place, and all night reading about it." Marlene clucked in disapproval. "It's no way to live, obsessed with death."

"It's my job—and my research. And it's not all about death, either. I'm trying to learn more about Polly's life." Kate sighed. No sense in rehashing the same arguments with Marlene. Kate both valued her privacy and loved her job. How else would she able to write a concise history of Dareville if she didn't devote herself to the research? Finding a man could wait, and if Mr. Right was so hellbent on finding Kate, everybody in town could tell him where to find her.

Marlene snorted at Kate's reasoning, and whipped out her green woolen beret. "Fine, stay here and talk to yourself. I don't want to hear you complain the next time you bend down for a dropped loaf of bread and your back gives out from osteoporosis, because you're so damned old and alone."

"You won't." You'll be dead by then, I hope, she thought, but not with malice. "And I'll try to be less clumsy. Maybe the next thing I'll have to pick up from the ground will be my hat, when I'm old enough to join the Green Berets."

"We are called Jaded Ladies," Marlene said, and arranged the beret on her head in a jaunty tilt. A few strands of gray missed by Marlene's stylist curled on her forehead. Kate tried not to laugh. It was nice to see her mother finally come out of her recent depression, following the desertion of Kate's father and a failed attempt to pursue a relationship with grocer Jake Marbury. Joining the social club geared toward middle aged woman seemed a smart move for Marlene, though Kate had to question the wisdom of the name, jaded meaning cynical.

Then again, maybe all these women did was drink and compare the sexual inadequacies of their ex-husbands. If so, Kate felt better for having spent her nights alone.

She shooed her mother out the front door, leaving Athena to the sandwich and other antiquated household appliances. "Go," she commanded. "Enjoy the festival. I have to stick around anyway for the delivery guy. I'm expecting some documents from Richmond. If nobody comes to visit by three I'll close early and meet you there, okay?"

Marlene didn't counter the compromise and left on a pleasant note to accompany the ringing bell hooked atop the door. Kate waited until the older woman reached the sidewalk before splitting into a relieved smile. Her back to the now closed door, she sank an inch and pressed her weight against the wood, wincing as her knees creaked in response. Damn, she was getting old.

Old and alone, chided her mother's voice in her head. Kate frowned and blew away a clump of brown hair fallen between her eyes, expelling with it the sudden image conjured of an older version of herself rocking in Polly Dare's favorite chair, surrounded by cats.

No. Much as she enjoyed her solitary life, Kate never imagined she would be unwed forever. She corrected herself—she was not getting old. Thirty-six may have been ancient for the spinster Polly Dare in the Reconstruction Era, but in the twenty-first century women were reconstructed. If Madonna could stare fifty straight in the eye while spinning on a stripper pole without getting dizzy, Kate figured she had time.

Right now, she craved the time alone, and the quiet of Dare House as she waited for her important package. Just her, the books she loved, the naked woman stretched over the staircase...

Huh?

Kate hadn't focused on any particular spot when Marlene left, but in her reverie allowed her gaze to pan the breadth of the parlor, the hallway, and the small foyer with the podium that served as the admissions kiosk. The gentle movements dancing in her peripheral vision she attributed to everyday bleariness, as often as she pored over handwritten diaries and histories when Dare House was empty. Looking up the stairwell toward the second floor landing, her breath hitched upon seeing a lithe, young woman two shades away from midnight, her elbows propped against the step, arching her back to better display her small, bare breasts.

Naked, black, and beautiful. Dark eyes appraised Kate with silent amusement. Full lips curved upward and parted slightly to offer a flash of white. Even with the dimmed light and distance, Kate felt blinded by that smile, shocked to encounter a face she had first seen in the charcoal sketches of Polly Dare's journals.

Athena.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Black Sail - Brenna Lyons

Black Sail - Brenna Lyons
October, 2006 - ISBN 978-1-59426-624-9
$3 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!
Author's backlist: Brenna Lyons

The birds were loud that morning. Ariadne opened one eye a slit, viewing the lush vegetation of Naxos. Did the blasted birds have to celebrate the day so early? Apparently so.

She rolled over with a sigh and pushed the woven blanket off. It was a warm, sunny day with a brisk breeze--a good day to hang the blanket to air and wash the meager clothing she had created for herself in the last year.

Naxos was a beautiful place, a fitting exile for a princess, she supposed. Ariadne laughed at the pampered life she'd once had. A daughter of Minos! A princess of Crete! "Ha," she barked at the clear, blue sky, startling a family of birds into hasty flight.

"A princess!" Of course, that had always been her problem. Ariadne was simply a princess, not the princess. She had never been the princess.

When Theseus had come to her father's kingdom, Ariadne had not known he was the prince of Athens. She saw a wealthy man, a beautiful and fearless man, a man unlike any she was like to have on Crete.

With her sister Phaedra around, no man was interested in Ariadne. If only the pampered toy had married, perhaps one of her lovesick throng might have glanced Ariadne's way. Phaedra, however, would not deign to simply choose a husband. She was like to taunt the men endlessly, raising the stakes of her affections until some fool set the stars at her feet in homage. By then, Ariadne would be an old woman.

When beautiful Theseus boldly offered himself as a sacrifice to the Minotaur's labyrinth, Ariadne saw her chance. She sent for Daedelus and bribed him for a way to allow Theseus to escape the deadly maze. That her actions were treason affected her not. Anything was worth escaping Crete and having a life away from Phaedra.

Hiding herself in the rough cloak of a commoner, Ariadne approached the prisoners with food. The guards looked through her, as they usually did with commoners who came to care for the offerings to the Minotaur. She found her golden man in private rooms and offered him a simple trade, the secret of the labyrinth for his promise to take her back to Athens as his wife.

"Who are you that you have such knowledge?" he asked her in hushed tones.

"I am the younger daughter of Minos. Do you accept my bargain?"

His eyes glittered in the near-darkness of the room. "You have my vow. Hide yourself away on my ship and do not show your face until we are away. We set sail immediately after I best the trap. What is the secret?

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Buenos Noches, Justine by Robin Slick

Buenos Noches, Justine by Robin Slick
August 2006 - ISBN 978-1-59426-604-1
$2 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!
Author's backlist: Robin Slick

It had to be the most uncomfortable plane ride I'd ever taken in my life. I was wedged between fellow employees Christopher Oates, who stared moodily out the window, and Benjamin Morris, who wore headphones and laughed out loud non-stop while watching The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.

"Kick him for me, will you, Justine?" Chris whispered.

"I'm considering worse," I said. "How dare he be happy? This is the flight from hell. Turbulent weather and crying babies for ten hours straight."

"And a giggling idiot," Chris said, scowling at Ben.

"Yeah, but we shouldn't be so hard on him. Poor thing. Away from his wife for seven whole days."

Chris snorted and I laughed. But, it was true. Ben was the only one with an enthusiastic reaction when we first got the news.

The three of us were New York investment bankers headed for Buenos Aires. The powers that be in our company had decided to send us to our office there for a week as part of a new training program.

"Oh, wow, thank you for this amazing opportunity," gushed Ben.

"Actually, I'm hoping that one or all of you decide to stay on in Argentina a bit longer," said our boss. "We could use people of your experience and work ethic."

Chris and I exchanged looks. A week away from New York and our clients and our lives there, sprung on us out of nowhere, did not exactly make us ecstatic. We were obviously not as adaptable as our pal Ben.

At one time, my heart would have raced at the thought of a week in South America with Christopher Oates. I really thought I felt sexual tension, or at least some sort of strong attraction, between us. What's weird is that I was usually never wrong about those things. I mean, I would look up to see him staring at me, or we'd accidentally brush against each other in the hallway, and I guess I was crazy to think I felt sparks. One time after I swore I felt downright heat coming from him I did something totally uncharacteristic: I asked him if he'd like to have a drink after work.

"A drink? With you?" He seemed horrified. "Um, no, I don't think so. It's never a good idea to fool around at the office. Didn't they teach you that in college?" While I reeled from what I thought was a pretty humiliating comment, his next move was to ruffle my hair like I was his ten-year-old kid sister.

And he walked away, leaving me confused altogether.

I decided that I would never look him in the eye again unless I had to, and would only speak to him if absolutely necessary. And if he, God forbid, ever so much as came within an inch of me, I'd stick out my foot and trip him.

It had taken a lot for me to work up the guts to ask him out. I'd recently broken up with my boyfriend, or should I say, I'd been abandoned. Michael was an actor who abruptly decided to relocate to Los Angeles. He never asked if I would consider going with him and, after I got over the initial shock, I had to admit I would never have gone anyway. Additionally I'd been ignoring signs of how self-absorbed he was throughout our relationship. Still, I was hurt and suffered a bout of insecurity following his departure, which was magnified when Chris turned down my offer to go out for a drink.

What was I, an ogre?

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Another Bite of the Apple - Robin Slick

Another Bite of the Apple - Robin Slick
June, 2006 - ISBN 978-1-59426-514-3
$6 eBook (five formats), $11 trade paper - Buy Now!
Author's backlist: Robin Slick

I wish I could tell you this has been a great year. I wish I could tell you I'm living on New York's upper West side with apartment windows facing Central Park and my paintings adorning the walls of my wealthy neighbors. I wish I could tell you I was even living in New York City, not a five story walk-up in Brooklyn, where I was stupid enough to have said okay to space on the top floor because it was less expensive while I tried not to think just what that meant at age forty-one. I wish I could tell you that living the Zen life without an elevator, a washer/dryer in my unit, and roaches so huge I've named some of them has finally given me inner peace.

The truth is I'm so miserable there are times I think I never should have moved here at all. I'm a complete mess--so much so that it seems like I can't even make a rational decisions these days. You want to talk shaky? I can't even decide what to have for dinner tonight though at this point I'm so hungry I'd settle for bread and butter. If I had bread and butter that is. But that would involve walking down those five flights of stairs and then three blocks to the alleged convenience store not to mention the trip home and back up the steps again. I've already done that twice in the past two hours doing laundry. I was so desperate for clean clothing and so damn afraid to hang out in the scary basement laundry room that I threw the whites in with the darks, overloaded the machine, and then had to feed the dryer $17.00 in quarters before the whole mess worked its way out of a damp tangled blob.

I'm seriously considering disposable underwear.

Anyway, at the moment I'm exhausted, hungry, and wondering how I'm ever going to get the inspiration to paint again. I've finished a grand total of two oils over the course of twelve months, a paltry portion of what I'll need to present to a gallery owner in hopes of a show. I look over at my brushes, crying out to me as they sadly marinate in an empty mayonnaise jar of turpentine. This, of course, is their death knell but I'm too tired to care, though not too tired to feel guilty. But just as I'm about to sink down on my sofa in total despair, the telephone rings and I reach over and grab it.

It's Rob! The caller ID thing is telling me it's Rob! Rob! My very best friend in the world, and, unfortunately, also my employer. I say unfortunately because I wish he were more than a friend. To say that I am secretly head over heels over this man is putting it mildly.

"Elizabeth? Marianne here. You free?"

Bleh. Marianne. Rob's perfect trophy girlfriend. The other reason he's just a pal. She's using his private office phone. Lucky me. Okay. Deep breath. Be nice. You need some good karma, Elizabeth. Start with Marianne.

"Yeah, I was just hanging out here, contemplating dinner. What's up?"

"Well, I can take care of your food problem," she says. Her voice sets my teeth on edge and my stomach sinks at what's probably coming next.

"Two girls called in sick and Rob really needs you back here at the restaurant--we're booked solid through 9:00 p.m."

"But I worked the lunch shift practically by myself and..."

"I know, Elizabeth. But we're really short-handed and Rob is counting on you. How fast can you get here? We need you like now!"

Why don't you put on a freaking apron, Your Highness? But of course I don't say this because she has said the magic words and she knows it. Rob is counting on me. Woo hoo. I will put on my wings and fly like a warped fairy princess down the five flights of steps and hop the subway back to Nana's in the East Village so that I can sling plates of high priced comfort food to weary New York yuppies.

And to think that just a year ago, I was one of them, eating $25.00 meatloaf with a $10.00 side of mashed potatoes and bringing home the leftovers for the dog. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

I walk into the bathroom to wash my face and get ready but am interrupted when the phone rings again. Oh please let it be the restaurant, telling me they don't need me after all ... maybe the other waitresses decided to show up.

I look at the caller I.D. and cringe. Good lord, it's the New York branch of the law firm where I spent the most miserable year of my life last year as a corporate attorney in their Philadelphia office. What could they possibly want from me? I've been out of that hell hole for a year, and I really never had anything to do with the New York firm so I can't be in trouble for anything, can I?

Oh god. Someone is suing them for malpractice and it's a file I worked on so I have to come in and testify.

No, no, I'm the one being sued for malpractice. That's what it's got to be. That's why the phone call and nothing as impersonal as an e-mail I might possibly ignore.

My hand freezes on the receiver as the phone rings four, five times, and finally, fear and curiosity get the better of me and I pick up just before the answering machine is about to kick in.

"Hello?" My voice cracks like a scared little kid.

"Superstar? Is that you?" The sexy British accent on the other end of the line is so not what I was expecting I almost fall over.

"Huh?" is what I reply, even though I know the identity of my caller for sure and I'm too shocked to think straight.

"Elizabeth? C'mon Superstar, you can't hide from me. I recognize that sexy voice!"

"Richard?"

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Anything But Anderson's - Tysche Dwai

Anything But Anderson's - Tysche Dwai
April, 2006 - ISBN 1-59426-557-7
$2 eBook (five formats) - Buy Now!

Long ago, in a far distant land, where standards of conduct rather different than our own applied, a handsome, dark-haired prince with eyes like midnight lounged at the window of his lonely, domed tower, chin in hand. As he studied the road beneath him with a jaded eye, he spied a golden lady in extreme distress running towards him.

Bemused by the sight, he studied the approaching figure with more than casual interest as she raced toward him. What could be the cause of the lady's evident misery? the prince wondered idly, curiosity piqued by the mystery. He resolved to find out--it could brighten up an otherwise dull day.

Leaning further out of the casement, he called out, "Mistress, whither away?"

The lady froze, dropping the edges of the flimsy ripped bodice she clutched closed before her bosom and revealing a golden girdle, which shimmered in the midmorning sun. The girdle held in place a filmy iridescent skirt that merely accentuated rather than concealed the form of her lower limbs--particularly with the sun's impudent glare shining from behind her to erase all shadows.

"That's the magical Jeweled Girdle of Ecstasy!" exclaimed the prince, his cock twitching at the very thought. "It is said that it bequeaths on its wearer superior sexual powers!" He looked with renewed amazement on the mysterious lady, wondering if he could coax from her a taste of the girdle's magical properties.

"My lord," she cried tearfully, the bare flesh of her heaving bosom quivering with emotion and tantalizing his delighted eyes, "are you Prince Malecom? For 'tis said that only he can break the spell of this voracious belt, which I must feed with sensual encounters, else it will rip me in twain! If you indeed be the much-vaunted prince, please relieve me of this wretched torment!"

"Malecom?" snorted the prince, as he greedily eyed the lady's ample charms. Wicked thoughts of fleshly delights were beginning to jostle for ascendancy behind his narrowed eyes. It was as if she was a carnal smorgasbord, and he was about to feast.