Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Rebel Among Goddesses by RaeLynn Blue


Chapter 1 


A light breeze passed through the lounging garden. Stark ice-glazed tree limbs shuddered against the gentleness of the wind, as if seeking warmth of their own. The nearby songbirds accented what should be a serene place, one at harmony against the snow-covered island landscape. All around, the land lay shrouded in ivory beauty, except for a shock of crimson. Bella looked her part as she leaned back against the curved stone rest: a tranquil and alluring ideal. But looks can be deceiving.
“Errol won’t last until Silver Solstice, Shar,” Bella began, but hesitated at the expression on her best friend’s face. “The assembly of goddesses won’t allow it. Errol’s behavior won’t be tolerated. To refuse a goddess’s rule is to refuse life itself. A goddess’s rule is law. To rebel against law is death.”
“And once I called you friend,” Shar replied breathlessly, her dreadlocks spilling over her shoulders and shielding her face from Bella’s view. Recoiling into her embroidered gown, only her fingertips showed from the fall of crimson fabric. “You used to care about people—about me. His behavior shouldn’t mar him, but set him apart as a free thinker.”
Bella snapped, “I do care about you, Shar. That’s why we’re having this conversation.” Sighing, she added, “Errol is a menace, a brute, but above all, he is in violation of our code. His actions are vile and unspeakable. If the assembly allows this to continue, think of the ripples. Think beyond your needs, your desire for him, Shar.”
I am. Shar paused, allowing the thought to zip through her and be finished before speaking, or else it would slither from her lips like a serpent and bite into Bella’s pride.  Though it was something her good friend could use right about now.
“He’s lonely and misunderstood. If the assembly would just talk to him. Explain things to him. Or better listen for once! Goddess, if only they’d listen to someone else for one blessed second...” Shar tried to pull the anger rolling out of her back in, but she succeeded only in releasing it in a long drawn out sigh.
“Why do you continue to protect him?” Bella asked with feigned disinterest. Her slanted gray eyes seemed to glow in the candles’ soft light.  The shadows scattered around the two of them, leaping and dancing as the breeze tickled the candles’ wicks. “What has he promised you? Done to you? Did he kiss your nether lips? Shove his tongue deep inside your core?”
Shar’s cheeks grew hot. Furiously, she watched her friend avoid her stare as if afraid she’d be burned by the intensity. What did Errol do to inspire her loyalty to him? Good question. Bella hadn’t been elevated to priestess because of her beauty—though that had helped. The girl could see through people sometimes, and the assembly valued that insight, especially about those who disobeyed.
Nothing I’m willing to divulge to you, Bella.
Shar cleared her throat and ignored the question. “Clearly the man has made a grave mistake, but it shouldn’t cost him his life. Honestly, Bella.”
“It isn’t for us to decide,” Bella pointed out with an aura of finality. Rising, she turned to light one of the candles in the massive pewter candelabra that shot upward from Goddess Lali’s altar. Circling the altar was a pristine pool that failed to be disturbed by the slivers of icy wind slipping between the doors and windows. Considered to be blessed by Lali, those who sipped the cool water soon conceived a child, or sometimes several.
“His father would be angered enough he might take measures,” Shar threatened, while knowing Errol’s father wouldn’t like being mentioned in this kind of conversation.
Bella snorted. With arms crossed over her robust bosom and feet planted beside the spotted sacrificial altar, she shot Shar a smirk and licked her full lips. “A mere human amongst goddesses. And though Errol’s mother is a goddess, Lesedi’s power of the peridot isn’t nearly as strong as that of the other four.”
“His father is also king, so obviously the power of the peridot won out over the competition,” Shar argued, but the words failed to penetrate Bella’s superior smirk. “The Silver Solstice is just around the corner, and no gem can withstand that of silver on its night.”
“A king is not a god,” Bella retorted and set about lighting the rest of the candles. “And Lesedi’s powers are pathetic compared to the great goddess, Lali.  Even if he tried to override or disobey the assembly’s decree, he’d be slain. Lesedi would be powerless to stop it.”
“How can you speak such words? They are grounds for your death!”
Again Bella smirked, touching one topaz-decorated ear. “Not here in these sacred walls. Lali protects her priestesses, and you should know the topaz rules all others. It’s obvious you are not ready for the ritual,” Bella said with a deep exhale, ignoring the rest of Shar’s words. “Meet me again at dawn. Truth is absolute and freeing. Embrace that truth, Shar. Errol’s behavior violates our way of life.”
Shar cared nothing for what the goddesses wished. She snatched up her satchel and stalked out of the opulent temple, leaving Bella to her prayers, chants and other duties worshipping her goddess.
Hot with anger, Shar fumed and realized she didn’t understand Bella at all. The same age and gender, they had been friends since their childhood, born into a life filled with happiness, but few men.  Perhaps it was only Shar who felt how small the island had become.
The king had been named so only because he had impregnated the queen, the goddess of hot, sweltering lust, Lesedi. Unfortunately, the baby had been born male, and as such, Errol, wasn’t given guidance, attention or love from his mother or her female servants until he’d come into his manhood.  Not to be outdone, Lesedi had tried again, even with other men, to sire a daughter.
Without success. Somehow, she only managed to give birth to males. Lesedi would pass the newborn off to one of the attending wives without so much as a blink to be reared by some lesser human female. Daughters. The goddesses only wanted daughters.
Now, the king clung desperately to his position, but all knew his days were numbered. Errol’s fate as the prince would dissolve and he’d be removed from the castle, just as Lesedi’s others sons have been discarded in favor of a female heir. In the wake of failures, Lesedi would be voted out by the assembly of goddesses which rule the island, and the torch would be passed to the next goddess, Bella’s choice, Lali.
“There you are,” came a deep ripple across the frosty air. “Been looking all over for you.”
Shar turned to face her brother, Priest Shimha. Taller than she by several inches, he seemed to tower over every other male. Perhaps the illusion of more height came from the fact that Shimha held himself up higher than any man in their village. Smooth dark skin gleamed beneath the starlight and he grinned. As strange as it was, for women ranked above the men and carried the power to pass on the goddesses’ abilities and gems from which they derived their power, Shimha wielded great influence.
She automatically returned his smile. If he knew her attempts to derail his mission, he’d be forced to turn her in and she’d be killed.
“I was talking to Bella,” Shar informed him, turning her voice light and shiny. “It’s time for my ritual.”
Her brother halted. “Is it? Which gem do you seek?”
She nodded, ignoring his question about the gem. Ritual came only once for each woman and it meant joining with the goddess of desire. Soon she’d be taken into her plane of existence and taught in the ways of love so that she could be wed to a man and produce more daughters. But first, she had to take a gem, choose a tribe—and a goddess.
“I’ve got four days until the solstice,” she said instead, sidestepping him.
Shimha scowled while he adjusted his robe, yanking it up the shoulders and smoothing it out with his hands flat while avoiding her eyes. Solstice meant a new beginning, and most of the island’s of-age females would select a tribe and undergo the ritual, abandoning family in the hopes of starting a new one. 
“Seems too early,” he mumbled at last, his focus directed at something off in the distance.
Shar rolled her eyes and said tartly, “It’s not. And the gems pick the woman, not the other way around, remember?”
At her tone, his eyes zipped to hers. Not liking what he saw there, he gave her a nervous smile and said, “I should be about seeking a suitable male for you then. Which gem do you want to embrace?”
“I can do that myself,” Shar retorted, hands on her hips. “And not before the choosing. I don’t want my communion tainted.”
Shimha’s eyebrows shot into his own mass of dreadlocks.  “I suppose you can.”
“Relax, Shimha, you’ll still be the primary male within our clan.”  As if the power he derived from his goddess wasn’t enough, he wanted to push his will across Shar’s life too to gain more.
He nodded, but looked ill as he started about his way, his spear swinging from his back, suspended by rope. His booted feet fell flat against the snow-dusted trail.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Shar leaned against the short stone wall that separated her clan’s farm from the priestesses’ palaces. As her breath escaped in puffs of cloudy frustration, she contemplated her brother’s actions. He said he had been looking for her but didn’t say why. Her comments about the ritual had bothered him, but surely he saw her, knew her body had changed and could smell the first brushes of heat upon her. Surely. Every male she passed on the roads turned and grinned loosely at her, like animals scenting a female in heat.
Most females allowed the males in their families to seek out their potential mates. Due to this positioning, the ritual fell to mere formality, lacking the religious power and convention the goddesses desired. It also allowed clans to create alliances when none had existed before, something the goddesses didn’t like either. For all their careful planning, political maneuvering and the like, the goddesses hated it when the humans did the same. Do as they say, not as they do.
At the moment, Shar realized she couldn’t be worried about Shimha’s loss of stature once she went through the ritual.  She couldn’t focus on anything except Errol. Chills blanketed her arms and legs, so Shar pushed off the stone and headed toward home. As she walked, frozen grasses crunched beneath her booted feet, and Shar could smell the approaching storm.  The hanging silver stars and gems would sparkle all the more after a bath of fluttering snowflakes. Ever since she could remember, all she longed for in life was a joining. Yet, being tethered to a sole male didn’t quite appeal to her. Shimha wouldn’t be able to handle such a thought.
“Besides,” Shar said against the cold wind, “Errol is going to come to heel beneath my aching want, or Goddess Lali is going to get one hell of a sacrifice.”
No, all Shar cared for was Errol. Three days was all she had been granted by the goddesses’ emissary. 
She had three days to save Errol’s life.

Top Men by G.A. Hauser

Chapter 1

"Ah! Mickey! Not here, you maniac!"

"Shut up and come." Mickey Stanton knelt down in the middle of a living room that was not either of theirs. Unbuckling Jeff's utility belt; the radio, the cuffs, mace, keys, flashlight, and his Glock and extra magazine clips, hung heavily from the leather holders clipping it to Jeff's pant's belt. He flipped Jeff's hard cock from his briefs and wrapped his lips around it.

"Oh, God!" Jeff panted in heaving gasps.

He loved it! Mickey got off on him and Jeff doing wild things on calls. It was such a rush. There they were, in the middle of checking an open premise for a residential burglary alarm in West LA, having oral sex. It just didn't get any better than that.

The scent of Jeff's body, his dark pubic hair brushing his face as Mickey drew him in deep, he felt Jeff on the verge, his cock going rigid and his hands. Mickey reached out to grip Jeff's dark blue uniform shirt.

He wanted to release his own cock and jack off, but he didn't think the residents would like finding spunk on their plush white rug.

"Ah! Oh, Christ!"

Mickey groaned in pleasure as Jeff's cum filled his mouth.

"Eight-Adam-One."

"Ah…Mickey…dispatch is calling…"

"My mouth is occupied." Mickey lapped at the head of Jeff's cock.

After an audible nervous swallow, Jeff keyed his shoulder mike. "Eight-Adam-One."

"Checking your status on the open premise."

"Under control."

Mickey laughed wickedly.

"Under control, Eight-Adam-One," the dispatcher acknow¬ledged.

Sitting back, he looked up at Jeff's gorgeous face. "You sounded like you just came."

"Shut up." Jeff stuffed his soft cock into his pants and hoisted the heavy gun belt back to his hips. "You are insane."

"Don't you love it?" Mickey stood, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Two cops sucking dick in the middle of a residential alarm? It's so fucking hot."

"Jesus, Mick…" Jeff double checked his zipper and caught his breath. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Suck mine on the next one." He winked, walking out of the living room.

After securing the home, Mickey dropped into the passenger's seat of their patrol car and began writing up a ticket for a false alarm.

Jeff collapsed next to him behind the wheel, resting his head against headrest and the Plexiglas divider that separated the backseat from the front. "I can't believe we got paired up together. What fucking luck, Mick."

"Yes, Officer Chandler, we are fucking lucky." Mickey finished writing the citation and tore off one copy. "Be right back." He hopped out, stuffed the paperwork into the mailbox and returned to the car.

"Lunch?" Jeff waited for him to get buckled in and cram his citation book back into the full nylon briefcase at his feet.

"Just had mine," Mickey replied, licking his lips and giving Jeff a sensuous grin.

"Was it enough to hold you all afternoon?" Jeff put the car in drive and began cruising down the street.

"No. I'll want seconds. Sloppy seconds."

"Shut up." Jeff laughed and slapped Mickey in the chest, hitting his Kevlar vest.

"Christ, I love doing that." Mickey squirmed in the seat.

"Make a decision, Mick. Clear the call and ask for lunch, or just clear the call. We can't milk it much longer."

"I want to milk you." He grabbed Jeff's crotch.

"You already did! Sheesh! Sucked me like a Hoover." Jeff grinned at him. "Clear the damn call."

Mickey picked up the mike. "Eight-Adam-One."

"Eight-Adam-One."

"Clear. Code One-Two."

"Eight-Adam-One, clear Code One-Two."

Mickey hung up the mike and stretched his legs as much as he could in the tight space. "What are you hungry for?"

"My cock up your butt."

Mickey broke up with laughter. "And you say I'm bad!"

Jeff pulled into the parking lot of their usual Mexican restaurant.

"You realize that's the one thing we haven't done on duty yet." Mickey unhooked his seatbelt as Jeff parked.

"On duty? Come on, Mick. It isn't possible." Jeff picked up the mike and asked the dispatcher for a lunch break. She gave them one.

They exited the car and walked together to the entrance.

"I'm not so sure about that," Mickey said. "I bet on the next alarm we could do it. You sitting on my lap. What do ya say?"

"I say you're nuts."

"I've got a rubber and a small packet of lube in my pocket."

"You've got your brains and a horny dick in your pocket." Jeff opened the restaurant door, allowing Mickey to enter first.

"I will nail your ass on duty," Mickey whispered out of the side of his mouth.

"I doubt that's gonna happen, babe. Too risky." Jeff straightened his expression for the woman who waited for them to approach.

"Hello, boys," the hostess greeted them. "Busy day?"

"Not too bad so far." Jeff smiled at her.

"Got a table up front by the window. I know you guys prefer it."

"Thanks, Conchita." Jeff winked.

Once they sat down she asked, "The usual, or would you like to look at menus?"

Mickey licked his lips wickedly at Jeff. "I know what I want."

"So do I." Jeff chided Mickey with an imploring look and said to Conchita, "The usual, please."

"Coming right up."

Mickey adjusted the volume on his radio so he could hear it but wasn't loud enough to annoy anyone else. "What are we doing tonight?"

Jeff waited as Conchita set down two glasses of water for them. After he thanked her, Jeff sipped his. "What do you want to do?"

"Fuck each other in uniform."

Choking on his water, Jeff cleared his throat. "Don't you get sick of always being in this thing?" Jeff tugged on his shirt.

"Not when my dick is up your ass."

Once he took a look around the area, Jeff leaned over the table. "You're lucky you're so fucking good looking, Stanton, because you're fucking high maintenance."

"Moi?" Mickey pressed his fingers against his chest. "That's crap. I'm so easy to please."

"Yeah, when we do it in risqué places." Jeff took another paranoid glance around.

"Hey, this," Mickey tugged at his own uniform shirt, "is just my stinkin' job, not my whole life."

"Then why do you want us to screw wearing it?"

"'Cause it's hot. I've had a cop fetish since I was ten."

"Yeah, huh?" Jeff finished his water.

"Yeah. Always played cops and robbers and wanted the cops to punish me, handcuff me, and beat a confession out of me. Mm."

"Shh. Food's here." Jeff pointed as Conchita brought over their meals.

"Here you go, men."

"Thank you. You're a doll for getting it out so fast." Jeff smiled at her.

"Enjoy."

"I love the food here." Mickey began devouring his enchiladas.

"And they love us. I hate wondering if someone has spit in my food." Jeff took a big bite of his taco.

"No secret sauce here." Mickey dabbed his lip with a napkin. "We should ingratiate ourselves with our local fire department."

"You mean the two hunks?" Jeff smiled.

"I mean the two hunks." Mickey continued to stuff his face in case an emergency call came across the radio and they had to drop their food and run. "You know they cook dinner and lunch at the fire station. We could happen to stop by at meal time."

"Why don't we just go out with them socially?"

"Yeah?" Mickey sipped his water.

Conchita brought a pitcher and refilled both their glasses.

"You're wonderful," Mickey acknowledged her.

"You're making me blush." She winked and walked to the next table.

"If I was straight, I'd do her." Jeff looked over his shoulder.

"Anyway…" Mickey rolled his eyes. "You want to see Hunter and Blake socially?"

"I wouldn't mind. But other than a few chance meetings on the job, do we really know them?"

Mickey was down to his last bites quickly. "We could get to know them better."

Jeff paused to listen to a call broadcast over radio. He resumed eating calmly, looking up at Mickey.

"You're hot for Hunter," Mickey hissed.

"I am not," Jeff replied, shaking his head.

"No? Why not? Big beefy fireman?"

"I never know what you want me to say?" Jeff pushed his empty plate aside and took out his wallet.

"I keep you on your toes, Officer Chandler."

"That's an understatement." Jeff counted out some singles for a tip.

"We got five minutes. Sit." Mickey slouched, moving his legs to lean against Jeff's under the table.

Jeff mirrored his posture, sitting low in the chair. "I'm fucking wiped. I'm not so sure about this three/twelve bullshit."

"Want to go on four/tens?"

"Can we just do that?"

"You don't like the extra days off?" Mickey drank more water.

"I do, but twelve hours is an eternity." Jeff watched two men pass, staring at them warily.

"Talk to the sarge."

"Would we still work together?"

"How the fuck should I know?"

Jeff straightened his back and leaned over the table. "I love working with you, Mickey. You're so much fun."

Mickey met Jeff over the table, nose to nose. "Likewise."

At their seductive pose, Jeff appeared paranoid and moved back. "Let's hit the road."

After they paid the check and were once again in their black and white patrol car, Jeff cleared their lunch break and headed to their district to cruise the streets. Mickey rested his hand on Jeff's broad thigh, rubbing it affectionately.

"Want to head to Venice Beach and check out the eye candy?" Jeff asked.

"Is anything holding?" Mickey turned to the computer screen that was bolted to the dash between them and typed in some codes to get his information. "Since July fourth, it's really calmed down."

"Yeah, that usually means something huge is going to happen."

"Shut up. I'm not in the mood for a big shooting." Mickey tapped at the keys. "Nothing in our district."

"Eye candy it is."

Mickey returned his hand to Jeff's leg. "I feel like I've known you for longer than three months, Jeff."

Jeff peeked over at him as he drove. "Are you going anywhere with this?"

"Well, yeah." Mickey laughed softly.

"You want us to move in together."

Rubbing Jeff's thigh, he replied, "Smart cop."

"Are you ready to be exclusive? Or just sick of living with your sister?" Jeff parked the patrol car with a good view of the beach and paved path. He kept the motor running with the air conditioning going as nearly nude men and women walked, jogged, or skated by.

Mickey noticed Jeff's attention resting on a very buff stud who was giving him the eye through the windshield. "This isn't about Aura. It's about us. I'm ready, but obviously you're not."

"I don't know. I just moved here from Seattle, Mick. I feel like I haven't had a chance to explore."

Mickey took back his hand and rested it on his own lap.

Jeff looked at him. "Mick, don't go all pouty on me."

"I guess we haven't talked about it, you know, how we feel about each other."

Laughing, Jeff said, "No. It's been pure sex and very little else between us so far."

Mickey paused as the dispatcher announced a new stolen vehicle, information only. "I want to talk to you more. But you fuck me senseless, then go to sleep."

"Twelve hours is a long day, babe." Jeff's eyes wandered out the window again.

"Well, I suppose at least I know where I stand." He crossed his arms over his chest. Angry, very angry.

Jeff tried to adjust his vest in the confines of the tight seat, pushing it up off his hip. "Mickey, please don't make it an issue between us. We love working together, don't we?"

Suddenly he felt like telling Jeff to fuck off, but didn't answer, instead staring out at the ocean waves.

"Mickey?"

"Why do you have to see other men?" Mickey growled a little more defensively than he'd intended.

"Hang on." Jeff held up his hand. He picked up the mike and responded to their call sign. "Eight-Adam-One."

"A report of shots fired in the area of Hancock Park."

"Roger, Code One." Jeff hung up the mike and put his seatbelt back on.

Mickey rubbed his jaw as they left the beach area. "This isn't an end to the topic."

"I didn't think it would be." Jeff checked the time on his watch.

Mickey thought they had something special. He'd already dated around. There was no Mr. Wonderful or Perfect out there. Jeff Chandler, with his tightly packed body, thick brown hair, and sea green eyes, was his Mr. Wonderful. It hurt to find out he wasn't Jeff's.

As they approached the park, Jeff opened the window of his cruiser, listening. "Who's the complainant?"

"Who fucking cares?"

"Mickey," Jeff admonished. "This is why I hate talking."

Mickey read the call off the monitor. "Anonymous."

"Just an area check then." Jeff slowed to a crawl, looking into the park.

For the last few hours of their shift, Mickey tried not to be upset, but it didn't work.

* * * *

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bride Ball by Brenna Lyons

Chapter One

Amber turned from the table, wiping flour dust from her hands onto her apron as she marched smartly to the door. The knock came again, just as she reached for the handle, an impatient demand for attention. She opened it, staring at the man standing outside.

He was impeccably presented, a dark suit that suggested a professional man or a mid-level noble. He offered a slight bow of his dark head to her. “Lady Reanne of Oakmarch?” he asked.

“My grandmother,” she offered with a similar bow for courtesy.

“Is she about? I must speak with her.”

“Mr...?” Did he honestly believe she would admit him that simply, without even a name to explain himself?

“Lewis Elmstead.” He pulled a fold of parchment from his inner coat pocket, bearing the prince’s seal. “If you please?”

Amber nodded, all but stumbling out of his way and waving him inside. It wasn’t often that someone bearing a royal seal graced their home; for her Nana’s sake, Amber had to be perfect in her service. She closed the door behind him, then led the way up the stairs and toward her grandmother’s rooms with a whispered word of welcome for him.

Nana’s parlor was open, as it nearly always was. Amber motioned to the prince’s emissary to wait and strode inside.

“Nana? Have you time for company?” she inquired, hoping it was appropriate to ask such a thing when it was a guest of this importance.

Nana’s beautiful blue eyes met hers, her smile making the creases in her ancient face deeper. “Ah, my Amber. Is it time for tea already?”

“Not quite, Nana. A royal representative needs to see you.” Her mind spun. How did one see to the comforts of someone of this status? It had been so long, and Mora had been hovering the last time... Tea! Of course. “But I will bring tea and fresh bread with jam.”

Nana looked up at last, glanced toward the open doorway, then nodded with a grim smile. “Show him in on your way, dear.”

“Yes, Nana. As you wish.” It was a relief to know she’d offered the right response.

She went back to the hall, offering a smile that felt strained to the emissary. “Lemon or milk, sir?” she asked.

“Milk.” He motioned to the parlor. “If I may,” he hinted.

Her face burned in embarrassment. “Of course.” Amber stepped back into the room. “Nana, may I present Mr. Lewis Elmstead?” She hurried away to the kitchen before further pleasantries were exchanged.

Heating the water and steeping the tea didn’t take long. In short order, she had Nana’s finest stoneware set on a tray and headed up the stairs with it.

The murmur of voices announced that the two were in earnest discussion about something. Amber breezed into the room and set the tray on the serving table as quietly as she could. A servant should always be inconspicuous.

“So, there are three young ladies in the household?” Elmstead asked, making note of it in a small leather-bound book.

“Indeed, there are,” Nana replied.

“Sugar, sir?” Amber asked, seizing what seemed the ideal moment to interrupt.

He didn’t look up from his work, ignoring her as most of the higher classes would. “No, thank you. Just milk, if you please.”

“Marmalade or elderberry?”

His pen stopped moving. “Pardon?”

“On your bread, sir? Do you prefer marmalade or elderberry?”

“Elderberry, thank you.” He went back to his work, addressing Nana. “And all three will attend?”

Amber spread elderberry jam on two thick slices of warm bread and mixed sugar into Nana’s cup of tea.

“I should say so,” Nana replied, as if it was an offense that the man had asked her such a question.

That voice nearly stopped Amber cold. It was haughty, something Nana was not known to be. It was as if she’d suddenly taken lessons from Mora.

She moved on, delivering the cups and plates wordlessly. Not wanting to intrude further, Amber headed for the door.

“Amber, dear,” Nana called out. “Sit. This concerns you.”

She came to stand before them.

“Sit,” Nana ordered again.

“But my dress is covered in flour.”

“And it will brush off. Sit.”

Amber nodded, settling in her father’s old chair.

“Their names?” Elmstead requested.

“This is my granddaughter, Amber of Oakmarch. The others are Ladies Marquita and Kambry Montberry.”

“Daughters of the Duke, I presume,” he intoned.

“On his first wife, Lady Mora. My son married her shortly after the Duke’s mistress presented him with his son, and he took her to wife to secure the child.”

“Your son was Lady Amber’s father?” he pressed.

Amber darkened. She wasn’t a titled lady, a fact that Mora never let her forget. Still, it would be rude to correct the gentleman.

“He was. My late husband was of the old leanings, though.”

Elmstead scratched at something in the book, most likely the title he’d assigned her in error. She knew her face was crimson and she ached to escape the conversation before the emissary announced she wasn’t welcome at whatever function they were discussing. But Nana had ordered her to stay. She had to sit quietly and hear his condemnation, no matter how much it galled her to do so.

“Your son had no heirs?”

“No. Xandra, Amber’s mother, died trying to bring forth his son. It is a shame that my husband still lived, then.”

He looked up, his expression curious. “You would have sanctioned the match?”

“Of course. Xandra was a lovely and gracious woman. She and Marcus were quite in love. But she was lowborn, and Nathaniel wouldn’t allow Marcus to marry her, unless Xandra produced a son for him.”

“But he did allow his son’s illegitimate child to stay,” he noted.

Amber bristled at that, clenching her teeth to silence her protest that a mistress’s child is not illegitimate. She wasn’t heir, but no woman truly was. She had no title, nor did she want one. She was hardly the result of some tavern fling. Her father had always declared her openly and with pride.

“Marcus had the right to any offspring he’d openly claimed. Even Nathaniel couldn’t argue that.”

“Of course.” Elmstead dismissed the discussion that quickly.

He’s dismissed me.

He continued, oblivious to her anger. “The three, then. They must bring an escort, as you know.”

Nana sighed. “I fear I am far too old for such amusements. I imagine Lady Mora will accompany them.”

He added a note to the book and snapped it shut. “Very well, Lady Reanne. I should be on my way.”

Almost as a matter of form, the emissary took a sip of the tea, then lifted the bread and took a dainty bite. His chewing slowed, and he took a second...a larger one. When he’d swallowed it, he smiled.

“This jam is excellent, Lady Reanne.”

“My granddaughter makes it,” she offered, puffing up in pride that he took notice.

Elmstead focused on Amber fully, and she fought the urge to wiggle in embarrassment. His gaze panned from her face to her chest, and Amber wished, not for the first time, that she had something less revealing than Kambry’s reworked, discarded dresses to wear. They were well within the laws for modesty, but those were lax.

“Does she?” he asked, his smile widening.

Amber cleared her throat. “I would be happy to gift you an assortment from the pantry,” she offered, peeking at Nana out of the corner of her eye, relaxing at the old woman’s nod of encouragement.

“I would like that.”

“Very well,” Nana said brusquely. “You can take care of that while you show Lord Elmstead out. Have a good day, sir.”

Elmstead took her hand without looking away from Amber. “A pleasure, Lady Reanne. Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Always offered,” Nana replied.

He rose, and Amber did likewise. She hurried ahead of him, wanting to be rid of him though she wasn’t certain why that was.

At the pantry, Elmstead crowded close to her, fingering Amber’s hair. Warning bells went off at that, and she turned, jams in hand.

“Elderberry, marmalade, blackberry, and currant,” she informed him.

“And are you as sweet?”

“P-pardon?”

His hand settled at her hip. “I could use another mistress.”

Her breathing went ragged in panic. What was the proper way to rebuff him without causing offense? “My grandmother expects—”

“She offered hospitality.”

Surely, that didn’t mean Amber was required to bed with him. Nana wouldn’t do such a thing to her.

Elmstead smiled, but the smile made her heart pound in fear.

“We could have a taste. If I am pleased, the opening—”

“I have a lot of work,” she offered, realizing how lame it sounded, even as the words issued forth.

“I take it you’re not willing?” he asked. To her relief, there was no snap of annoyance.

“I’m afraid not. It’s not that you are displeasing, sir,” she hastened to add.

“But you are not of the heart to be my mistress.” He didn’t question it.

“I’m afraid not.”

He nodded. “Very well, but keep me in mind. When Lady Reanne passes, Lady Mora is not likely to tolerate your presence.”

She nodded, her heart aching. Elmstead knew her greatest fear; she only wished his mention of it didn’t sound so much like a threat.

“I am kind to my mistresses,” he assured her.

“I will bear it in mind.” But selling herself into such a situation with a man she found no attraction to wasn’t to Amber’s tastes. She’d rather live in squalor with someone that made her heart pound in excitement than in luxury with one that made it pound in fear.

Elmstead smiled in a way that Amber was sure some women would find devastating. “Another time, then.” He collected the jars and turned toward the door.

Amber hurried ahead of him again, opening the door and bidding him a polite “good day.” He stepped through and made for his vehicle without a backward glance. She forced herself to shut the door slowly, then rushed to the window to make certain that he left promptly.

Elmstead handed the jars to a guard, who stored them in a large pack on the front seat of the vehicle. Then the lord slid into the rear seat and smoothed his suit jacket.

“That was an extended stay,” the guard noted. “Did you find a diversion inside?” It was obvious that he was teasing the lord.

Elmstead glanced toward the house, his eyes locking on the window she was peeking through. She shut the drape with a gasp, hoping she hadn’t encouraged him.

“Nearly, William. Nearly.”

Doors closed; the vehicle roared to life and then rumbled away toward town.

Amber took a calming breath. She looked toward the floor above, seething at her grandmother’s plans for her. Without a thought to the dinner that needed roasting, she launched up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

“Nana!” Amber burst through the doorway into the parlor, stopping in military form as her father often had, planting her fists on her hips. “How could you?” she demanded.

Nana sipped her tea, unperturbed by the show of temper. “He offered you a place. Didn’t he?”

“As his mistress.” She swallowed a wave of disgust.

“I was Nathaniel’s mistress.”

How many times had she repeated that? As if her positive experience negates all other possible outcomes.

“He’s twice my age, at least. And my mother was a mistress, if you care to recall. Had she lived, all would be well, but she didn’t.” And where had that left Amber?

“Yours was an extreme case. Your father trusted too much. He left too much in Mora’s control, believing she would be good to you.”

Amber snorted in an unladylike manner.

For once, Nana didn’t offer correction. “Why did you turn him down?” she asked, jumping topic to topic as she always did when they came to this impasse.

“Why should I accept him?” Amber countered.

“Lord Elmstead did nothing for you, then?”

“No,” she admitted. “He was nice enough, in his own way, but...” How did one qualify what she wanted? A man that made her heart sing?

Nana considered that. “You need a younger man, one that excites you.”

Amber pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead, feeling the first twinges of pain that would soon be pounding. “Nana,” she began patiently. “I do not need a man, at all.”

“Yet, but someday soon, you will.”

She nodded miserably. Nana wouldn’t live forever. When she died, “Lady” Mora would set Amber out, even if a blizzard blew.

“A young man then.” She waved a folded piece of parchment with a broken seal. “And this is the perfect place to find one.”

Amber groaned, plodding to the chair she’d used earlier and dropping into it, her head aching. At the very least, it already needed dusting. She couldn’t do much more damage, could she? She consigned herself to some torture of the old woman’s devious mind. “What now?”

“The prince is throwing a ball.”

“I don’t know how to dance, Nana. What would I do at a ball?” She’d be hopeless, a laughingstock. A ball would hurt her chances, not help them. Besides that, she wasn’t a noble. Last she checked, balls were for the nobility and royalty.

“How convenient that it is not that sort of ball.”

Amber screwed up her face in confusion. “What other sort of ball is there?”

Nana handed the parchment over, and Amber spread it flat on her lap.



To the ladies of Lenvia, I send greetings,



Be it known that His Highness, Prince Edward, seeks consorts, mistresses, and/or a bride. To that end, there will be a series of evening events in the four quarters of the Kingdom. The next Bride Ball will be held the 20th of Lunn at the estate of Lord Lewis Elmstead, to begin at dusk. All ladies, high and low, are urged to attend. In addition to His Highness, all noblemen of a want will be welcome to...



Amber scanned the rest, including the rather extensive list of rules for the event. “All young ladies must have a female escort, who will be responsible for their actions. No weapons or aphrodisiacs are permitted on the premises, under the harshest penalties allowed by law. Aphrodi... A sexual ball?” she asked.

“There is dancing there,” Nana mused, “but not those tiresome court dances. A woman need merely be swept away at a Bride Ball.”

“I have heard they are—”

“Delicious.”

Hardly the word Amber would have used for it.

“Oh, I wish I was young enough to escort you,” Nana sighed, her eyes glittering at some far-off memory.

“You cannot be serious. Being pawed by noblemen?” The thought sickened her.

“Only if you invite it. A simple refusal will end any unwanted attention.”

Amber picked that apart, looking for something to attack. Nana was making that difficult.

Not to mention, Lord Elmstead had taken her refusal well enough. Of course, he believed she’d be forced to call on him someday; he’d made that clear enough.

But she’d heard about Bride Balls. Women did the most shocking things there: sexual displays with men and other women, bared bodies for sale...

“What would I wear?” Amber asked, seizing at one thing Nana couldn’t have an answer to. Nothing she owned was appropriate for a Bride Ball. Thank the Goddess Mother! She couldn’t go in her work dresses, and it was a safe wager that Marquita and Kambry were not going to lend her something suitable.

Nana chuckled. “I have the very thing. It may not be the height of fashion, but it will showcase your attributes nicely.” Her gaze fell, rather pointedly, on Amber’s chest.

Amber felt her face burn, and she found it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Showcase? You don’t mean...” She crossed her arms over her chest at that thought.

“You won’t be walking around with your wares on display...unless you wish to.”

“That’s quite all right, thank you.”

“Then, it’s decided,” Nana stated.

“What?” Amber hadn’t decided anything. “I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s simple. Meet the noblemen. If any among them stokes the flame within you, give him leave to seduce you. If anything disturbs you, refuse. If not, pursue pleasure. If it pleases you both enough, accept a position...or a trial position.”

“And...if it doesn’t please us both enough?”

Nana raked her gaze up and down Amber’s body. “Your first time may not be, though it is for some. We could...”

“Nana! You are joking, I hope.” Amber forced her legs to relax, abruptly aware that she was clenching her thighs together in rebellion at the suggestion.

“A sensible choice. The nobles like educating a virgin. You are more likely to make a coveted arrangement, if they know you’ve never experienced—”

“I may have a headache coming on,” Amber moaned. May? It was pounding behind her eyes with sickening intensity.

“If you do, have it now. On the night of the Bride Ball, you will want to enjoy yourself fully.”

“Nana,” she pleaded.

“Trust me. If some young buck makes you hunger, be willing to play.”