Friday Snippet: Jesse

Okay, I wasn’t going to post any more, but the next section is short and gives a glimpse into Jesse’s head.  And hey, it’s still Friday, and I’m celebrating because I got the revisions turned back in on the Maya story (early! whee!).

So here’s Jesse.

Oh, there’s something about me all right, Jesse thought sadly, waiting until she shut the door before looking about the room.  Simple, spartan, and the most glorious thing he’d seen in years, until he found a stack of clean clothes on the shelf.  Even musty from storage, they smelled like heaven.  Then he saw the shampoo and soap in the bathroom, and he found himself crying beneath the steaming hot water. 

      God, so incredible.  People just didn’t know what a luxury it could be simply to be clean.  To have a spare set of clean clothes.  To be in a safe enough place to risk taking his filthy clothes off and washing completely.  Bliss.  Pure bliss.

      It all came from the most gorgeous, unforgettable woman he’d ever met.  He had no pride left, or surely he’d be ashamed that he’d come to her like this and she’d taken him in like an abandoned puppy.  He’d depended on seeing her every day, but then she’d quit coming to the park.  He hadn’t even known her full name or where she worked.  One of the women he’d seen her with occasionally had dropped the fact that Vicki had left the firm to start her own business.  Somewhere on [street], so he’d started hanging out in this neighborhood, hoping to find her.

      Never in a million years had he thought she’d let him inside her home.  All he’d wanted to do was see her again, find her place, and maybe stop by once a week or so, just to talk.  Just to see her smile at his latest work.

      I know where to find her now.  He scrubbed his hair a second time.  I can’t stay long.  She’s sheltering me from the cold, that’s all.

      She has no idea that I’m hopelessly in love with her.

Friday Snippet: Vicki

I’m a little nervous about sharing her already, simply because I’m still revising and layering like mad as I write.  I don’t know how “erotic” this story will really end up being–it’s more about impossibly complex relationships, what home means, and how the characters see each other. 

For now, this is the opening section of Vicki’s story, subject to heavy revision.  Vicki is Conn’s (Dear Sir, I’m Yours) and Victor’s (Hurt Me So Good) sister.  There are still a few minor [notes] that I’ll figure out later (place names).

It didn’t snow very often in Dallas, TX, but when it did, everything came to a halt. Walking carefully on the icy sidewalks, Vicki Connagher paused at the deserted intersection. Shivering, she drew her coat tighter with her free hand. What a stupid idea. She should have just stayed in tonight instead of braving terrible roads and the chilly night for a few groceries, even though the store was only three blocks away.

Just one more block, she told herself, trudging across the slushy road. Snow still fell thick and wet, dulling the usual noises of the city. The hot cocoa was going to taste especially good tonight. She’d bundle up on the couch in her favorite quilt and stay up all night watching cheesy horror movies. It sounded like a blast, if only she wasn’t alone.

But she was alone, miserably alone, and so she knew she’d end up working downstairs all night to avoid the emptiness of her apartment. She still had to come up with one more evening gown design before the gala.

Her foot slid out and she fell with a curse that would have brought Mama with a bar of nasty soap to wash out her mouth. Getting wetter and colder by the minute, she muttered, “Not even chocolate is worth getting out in a freak Texas blizzard.”

“Are you all right?”

The male voice startled her, but she quickly recognized him as a street artist, Jesse.  She’d bought several of his charcoals and dropped a few bucks in his hat every time she was over by the park, which unfortunately, she hadn’t seen in months. Not since she’d quit her job at Wagner & Leeman. “I’m fine. Nothing hurt but my pride. How are you, Jesse?”

Beaming that she remembered him, he helped pick up the canned beans that had escaped her shopping bag. Despite the ragged clothes and general grime, he was a handsome young man. He managed to appear so wholesome and down-to-earth that she’d instantly liked him from the start. “Haven’t seen you around [park] in a while.”

“I quit my job and started my own business. Corporate life got to be too much for me.”

“I’ll say.” Chuckling, he handed her the last can, and then shyly pulled a small square out of his bag. “I made something for you.”

She held the folded paper up to the streetlight. On the front, he’d used watercolors to paint dozens of butterflies, laid on top of each other in carefully detailed layers so the entire page was covered in wings. Inside, he’d written a simple message: Happy birthday, Vicki.

“Sorry, I know your birthday was months ago, but I didn’t know where you’d gone.”

“Oh, Jesse, thank you. How did you know?”

He smiled and shrugged, shifting the strap of his back higher on his shoulder. “I overheard you tell your friend that you were planning a special dinner with your family for your birthday. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop; you were standing behind me while I sketched. Anyway, I’ve got a few new pieces you might like. Come over to the park when you get the chance.”

“I will.” She stared down at the card, thinking about how many weeks he’d carried it in his bag, protecting it from getting torn or dirty, hoping to see her. He’d made her a card, when some of her best friends hadn’t remembered her birthday at all. “Thank you, Jesse. This really means a lot to me.”

He tipped his battered, lopsided straw hat, gave her a another smile, and turned to head down the street. Alone. His skinny shoulders hunched against the cold.

Vicki had built all sorts of reasons that he was on the streets in her mind, but she’d never had the courage to ask him. He only had on a jean jacket, no gloves, and the knapsack tossed over his shoulder, exactly how she’d seen him countless times. Everything he owned in the world was in that bag.

“Jesse?”

Immediately, he turned around and came back, his eyes wide and hopeful. It was too dark and gloomy to make out the remarkable turquoise shade of his eyes, but she remembered. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Do you have someplace to go?”

“Oh, sure.” He nodded, but she didn’t like the way he ducked his head. “Don’t worry about me. Just come over to the park when you get the chance. I miss seeing you.”

She took the last few steps toward her building, her mind screaming all the reasons it would be stupid to ask him inside. She was alone. He was a man, bigger and stronger than her even if she had a few years on him. She had a damned good security system on both the shop and her apartment upstairs, but if he chose to overpower her, she wouldn’t have a chance to call for help.

She didn’t really know him at all. He was homeless, for God’s sake, and had probably seen more crime and violence than she’d even dreamed of despite working all those years as a defense attorney. But there was something undeniable in his eyes, a deep, soul-piercing light that she couldn’t forget. Without saying a word, he managed to reach inside her and tug, hard, amplifying her guilt and worry. It wasn’t her fault that he was homeless, but it would be her fault if he froze to death tonight.

Putting on her best formidable cast-iron face that had intimidated many a shady character into providing better testimony, she turned and faced him squarely. “If you promise to behave yourself, you can come home with me tonight.”

His eyes flared wide with horror, which instantly made her feel better about asking him. His mouth opened, but it took him several times before he could say anything. “Oh, no, ma’am. That wouldn’t be right. I just wanted to make sure you were okay—it didn’t even occur to me that you might… No, please, I couldn’t.”

“I couldn’t sleep a wink if you were freezing out here all night.” She opened the door to the shop, her key immediately disabling the security system, and flipped on the light. He hovered behind her, staring at the warmth and shelter longingly. “I’m making a huge batch of chili and cornbread.”

His shoulders shook, stiff and reluctant, but he didn’t move closer.

“What I really wanted was hot cocoa; that’s why I went out tonight before the weather got too horrible. Not cocoa from a mix or powder—I want the real thing. I’m going to make some first.”

“With real milk?” His voice sounded hoarse. He took a step closer, but kept his shoulders down, hunched, as though he were trying to make himself smaller and less threatening. “And marshmallows?”

“Real milk, real chocolate,” she promised. “But I don’t have marshmallows. I think they’re disgusting. Come on in, Jesse. I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but I can make a mean pot of beans.”

He hung his head, one hand fisted on the strap of his bag so hard his fingers were white. “I’ve been in trouble before, ma’am, but I haven’t been arrested in more than five years, and I’ve been clean since. Call one of your old contacts in the police department and check up on me.”

She was surprised at his willingness to share his unsavory past—and a little disconcerted that he knew so much about her from the few times they’d talked so casually. “I can do that. I should also warn you that my very mean and much bigger older brother could be here in minutes.”

Leading the way through the long tables stacked with fabrics and trim, she flipped on another light. Now I know why my security guy insisted I have a separate system for my upstairs apartment. “I set up this place so that my seamstress could sleep over when we’re on a time crunch. There’s a bed, clean linen, and a full-sized bathroom.”

Jesse risked a quick glance at the room but otherwise kept his head down, his shoulders so tight that he was as short as her, when she knew he was actually several inches taller. Lightly, she touched his arm. He flinched, but at least his head came up. She was struck again by the intensity of his eyes, so clear and innocent despite the harshness of his life.

“Are you sure?” He asked, his voice shaking. “I didn’t mean–”

“I’m sure,” she smiled, gently squeezing his arm. Lord, he was so thin, just bones and tight wiry muscle laid over the top. “Look around on the shelves in the closet—I think I stuck some of my brother’s old clothes in there. Take a shower and come upstairs when you’re done. I’ll have the cocoa ready in no time.”

“My full name is Jesse Dean Inglemarre and I’m twenty five. Check me out. If you’re not comfortable, tell me to leave. I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’ll leave immediately, no questions asked. I won’t ever bother you again.”

He was several years older than she’d guessed, although still five years younger than her. She smiled to put him at ease. It felt right, so very, very right, to help him. “You’re not bothering me.”

Solemnly, he stared into her eyes, searching her face, even though he didn’t ask. Why me? Why are you doing this?

How could she explain it? Sometimes after a particularly bad trial, the only bright spot in her day had been walking through the park to see what new drawing he might be working on. On this cold, lonely night, he was a welcome surprise. “There’s just something about you, Jesse.”

Friday Snippet: Hurt Me So Good

Thank you to everyone who has contacted me about beta-reading.   This post was actually scheduled last night, so I’ll post the Giveaway winner shortly.

Victor’s been on my mind all week, so I thought I’d post one last bit before I move on to the next story.  I’ve been talking about him and his riding crop until you’re probably sick of it, but you haven’t really seen him in action.

Until today.

In this scene, they’re filming the trailer for their BDSM reality show that Shiloh created specifically for him so she could get close to him.  They’re playing here for the show, but it’s also the first time they get to play a scene together, if you know what I mean.  The language is fairly clean but he does use the crop on her, so please don’t read further if that kind of scene will offend you.  

Of course, since this is the first real scene with the crop, the rest grow in intensity.  *winks*

 

On their brand-new set for America’s Next Top sub, Shiloh had never felt sexier.  The outfit wasn’t exactly historically accurate, but from the darkness burning in Victor’s eyes, she’d accomplished her purpose.  She wore a short muslin shift barely more than a tank top with a white corset over the top, lifting her breasts and pushing out her booty.  To make the scene as sexy as possible, she wore white lacy high-cut panties that disappeared beneath the corset.  Without any skirt or petticoat, her ass was barely covered enough for TV.

      Delicate pink stockings encased her legs to mid-thigh, tied with white ribbons, and she wore heels elaborately covered in sparkling crystals.  Sweeping white feathers formed her mask, swan wings to frame her face and conceal most of her hair.  She didn’t think her own mother would recognize her.

      Victor wore tall gleaming riding boots and black jodhpurs that concealed the protective brace on his knee.  His shirt was plain white linen, loose and open at the neck with billowing sleeves tied at his wrists.  She hadn’t dared ask, but he’d opted to leave his hair loose, glossy black and tousled about his shoulders.  Black wings covered his face except for his mouth and eyes, sweeping tight to his head and down to his shoulders.

      Of course, the Master’s look was completed with his crop.

      She stared at that crop and her stomach turned to cold, hard lead, even while a rush of liquid warmth flooded her veins.

      “What’s the set up?”

      The distant, reserved tone of his voice helped her focus on the show, and not the Master.  “This is the opening shot that will play at the beginning of every single episode.  We didn’t want to associate our show with Silken every single time, so we chose a basic neutral shot here.”

      “Good.” He gave a curt nod, barely meeting her gaze.  “Where do you want me?”

      It felt strange to give him orders, but he’d made her showrunner.  This was her idea.  She wanted it to succeed on multiple levels, not the least of which was her career.

      She directed him to sit in a simple wooden chair with the crop in his lap.  “The scene opens with you cleaning and preparing your equipment.  The light will be focused on you, casting the rest of the area in shadows.  When you’re satisfied with the gleam on the leather, stand up.  The lighting will slowly brighten to show me at your feet, waiting for your attention.  We need a few minutes of Master/slave play.” Her throat tightened, making her voice gruff.  “Your choice.”

      “Excellent.” He smiled, and it was far from the mellow ease last night as he groaned beneath her hands.  This man couldn’t wait to bring that crop down on her flesh.  “I always thought we should eroticize the cleaning and care of our tools.”

      Mal snorted.  “I think your tool gets plenty of care, V.”

      Chuckling, he spread his knees wider and picked up an oiled cloth.  “Not yet.”  

      He met Shiloh’s gaze and her nerves zinged as though she’d been electrocuted.  He pointed the crop at the floor to his right.  He didn’t have to say a word.  From the tip of his smallest finger to the soles of his feet, the Master commanded her to kneel at his feet.

      That quickly, she slipped fully into the role of his submissive.  The show meant nothing.  This was their first scene, her chance to give him exactly what she’d been dreaming about.  As gracefully as possible, she knelt where indicated and pressed her face to the floor six inches from his boot.

      #

      Cameras rolled, lights blazed into his eyes, but Victor had one thought only: the woman waiting at his feet.  He’d never enacted a scene for one of his shows before, although he was no stranger to performances.  Sometimes it was hard to ignore the crowd; other times, the audience fed off the scene’s energy and multiplied it, frenzied as though they could feel his lust and power.  That’s exactly what he wanted this scene, this entire show, to bring to Dallas.

      With slow, deliberate intent, he stroked the cloth over the leather, lovingly caring for the weapon that could bring so much pain.  He’d carried it for years, and although he’d tried various other tools of the trade, he always came back to this crop.  It fit his hand perfectly, flexible but stout with a wide tip that combined to make a wickedly vicious whoosh.

      “That’s good, V,” Mal called from the side.  “It looks like you’re making love to the crop.  Prepare for the lights to brighten.”

      He gripped the crop in both hands at either end and stood, letting the camera focus solely on the Master’s weapon.  He wanted the viewers to lean toward the screen, breathless with anticipation about what he intended to do with it.  Light flooded the floor, and someone off to the left gasped, even though they’d all known Shiloh was there.

      He raised both arms overhead and turned his body slightly, giving his profile to the camera.  Poised, he waited what seemed like an eternity, and then he jerked his left hand down toward his thigh.  The crop whistled through the air.  Leather smacked against his thigh in a satisfying crack.  The stinging cut of the crop heightened his senses, focusing his mind and body on one thing only.

      Dominion.

      Shiloh’s hand crept out to touch his boot, begging for the next blow.

      He waited until she wrapped her hand around his ankle, and then he reached down, seized a handful of her hair at her nape, and hauled her up to her knees.  Bending down, he glared into her eyes.  “Why are you here?”

      He chose to say those words because that’s how he always opened a serious scene, and while this scene might be taped for a TV show, it was real, serious, heavy shit, to him at least.  He wanted to make sure she had committed to it as much as he did.  Unscripted, her responses would reveal her true intentions.  What did she expect to get out of a scene with him?

      “To submit to you, Master.”

      He straightened slightly, widening his stance, his left arm held out and back to the side, keeping the crop visible for the shot.  “What may I do to you?”

      “Anything you want, Master.”

      Ah, yes, she couldn’t have given him a more perfect response.

      He drew her closer, deliberately lifting her face toward his crotch.  She made it look pretty instead of vulgar, her back arched, her gorgeous ass lifted to tempt him.  Even if they were alone, he wouldn’t have let her touch him.  He merely wanted to torment her with what she couldn’t have.  Not until she’d satisfied his other urges.

      Her lips were soft, open, her face hauntingly beautiful with the stark lights blaring down on her and feathers curled about her cheeks.  She resisted his grip, pulling her own hair in order to lean closer, trying to get her mouth on him.

      The lights dimmed, breaking the moment.

      “Hold on just a minute,” Mal said to him, then louder, “Bring up the backlights.  This next part we want only their silhouette.  Okay, good.  When you’re ready, V.”

      “Ready for what?” Someone asked in a loud whisper.

      He whipped the crop over his head and brought it crashing down on Shiloh’s buttocks. 

      She let out a low, throaty moan that tore at his control.  He knew the blistering fire that had exploded on her skin, the deep throbbing pain despite his care to control his arm.  He never started as heavy as he would end; even as a sadist, he took care to begin with a sensual blow and not a cutting one backed by his full strength. 

      However, after denying his darker urges for so long, he was close to coming from that blissful sound of her cry alone.  To reward her, he let her rub her face high on his thigh.

      Shocked silence hung over the set for several long seconds, and then his crew erupted into cheers. 

      “Bring the lights up,” Mal said.  “Let’s see the whole thing from the beginning and see if we need to re-shoot.”

      Victor clenched his fist on the crop, grinding his teeth with fury.  He did not want to stop.  He did not want to sit down and watch the tape.  He wanted—

      Shiloh stared up at him, her eyes wide, glistening with tears, pleading.  “Please.”

      Don’t stop.

Friday Snippet: My Clockwork Heart

So far this month, I’ve written a whopping 3,700 new words (although I’ve been editing other completed manuscripts).  I’m pretty proud of those words, even though the count is so small.  What, you say?  How can less than 4K be an accomplishment when I’ve written that much in a single day?  

Because it’s a new short story and interesting, engrossing shorts can be so difficult to write.

I saw a horror anthology call a month or so ago and immediately got an idea for it.  However, as I worked through the storybuilding process, the idea fell apart on me, tattered beyond recognition.  The fire burned out.  As of two weeks ago, I wasn’t going to write anything for the antho after all. 

As soon as I said nevermind, my Muse snickered and hit me with the REAL idea, laughing with wicked glee that I only had 10-14 days to write a 2-6K story by the deadline (today).

I finished the story last night.  The first several sections have been polished several times, but I need to edit the last section today over lunch, and then I can fire it off to the editor.  If it’s not accepted for the antho, you’ll get it as a freebie next month, which has particular significance in the story.  *winks*

So here is the opening section of a horror (creepy not gory) story:  MY CLOCKWORK HEART.

A gentleman took note of Mary’s dishabille, peering down his long aristocratic nose with a cruel, sensual curl to his lip. Then he noticed the splatters on her nightgown: mud, no, surely not blood… and his top hat fell into the gutter.

Yet he did nothing to help her. No one did.

She ran through thick, suffocating fog from island to island of dirty gaslight, muttering out loud, “One more light. One more step.”

Even the street urchins who typically jostled for a passerby’s attention by waving the latest news could only stare at her with a knowing horror in their eyes. Too many women had ended this way, especially in this part of London. They would be shocked to know that she was Lady Aurum, wealthy enough to purchase each and every ragged shack on this crooked narrow lane. The only building that had managed to obtain her notice, however, had been the large abandoned factory in the deepest, darkest warren of streets just off the wharf. Her laboratory; her refuge.

Her heart gave a weak stutter. The knife had sliced deeply, surely more injury than a bloodletting doctor could ever hope to mend. She laughed, a wet cough of blood in her mouth. I have no more blood to let.

Her leaden arms were numb, but she kept her left fist buried hard in the gaping wound in her chest to staunch the flow. Perhaps she could use her fingers to manually pump the damaged organ if her heart ceased beating before she reached the laboratory.

Barefoot, she staggered onward. The loud clang of her left foot echoed eerily in the endless night. A particularly vicious case of gout had crippled her father, until she’d managed to construct a new golden foot for him. Then she’d contracted the same debilitating illness, giving her incentive to improve on the prototype.

Despite the failing weakness of her injured heart, the foot of delicate gears and gleaming metal still worked to balance her weight perfectly, arching and pushing against the treacherous cobblestones to propel her another pace closer to her sanctuary. If she died on this filthy street, she daren’t guess how long it might take for one of the poor to gain the courage to cut off that golden limb.

She shoved the door open so hard the wood rebounded on the wall. Her assistant, Mr. Moreland, whirled around with a copperwhirl in one hand and a magnifying glass in his other. “My lady! Anne, come quickly!”

With a swipe of his arm, he cleared the high table, heedless of his project. Mary glimpsed only bits of wire and cogs before the construct shattered on the floor. He scooped her into his arms and gently lay her on the table.

“Heart,” she gasped out through frozen lips.

With a comforting squeeze to her shoulder, he smiled. “Never fear, my lady; I know exactly what to do. How fortuitous that you were already experimenting on a replacement!”

The clockwork heart had been the natural progression of her work. After she’d accomplished foot replacements on her father and herself, she’d returned precious music to a violinist whose hand had been crushed in a carriage accident. His tearful gratitude and charm had been so considerable that she’d married that handsome young—but extremely poor—Italian. Not only had she returned his music, but she’d also gifted him with her heart.

She’d never intended to make the latter a physical exchange.

As calmly as though his mistress stumbled through the door every day requiring massive surgery to preserve her life, Mr. Moreland strode to the cabinets and began selecting the tools he would need. She heard the muted, frightened questions from Anne, the maid-of-all-works they were training to be an assistant, and his soothing response, although their words made little sense.

Fog still enfolded her, cold and heavy. Too heavy to breathe. Too cold to ever be warm again. Her heart beat out a ponderous dying waltz. She counted a slow twenty, chest aching with agony, until the next beat.

Tears trickled down her cheeks. Love had blinded her. Love had killed her.

Her heart gave one last desperate painful thump in her chest and she sank into the billowing fog.

Return to Shanhasson Chapter One

Merry Christmas!  My gift to you this year is Chapter One of the third Shanhasson book.   Deena hasn’t gotten her hands on this yet, so all mistakes are mine.  Warning:  there are inevitable spoilers to the first two books.

CHAPTER ONE

Blessed Lady above, if these vipers are my allies, then I am already doomed to Shadow.

Masking her disgust and impatience, Shannari struggled to keep silent while her advisers argued. After three years of ruling afar from the Plains, she felt less the High Queen than ever.

She watched the tells her father had trained her to notice: the tiny glances between King Phillip of Maston and Royce, the new Duke of Pella who’d replaced Stephan after his own peasants revolted; the deference every single one of these arguing idiots paid to King Challon, who sat silently at the opposite end of the table; and the utter disregard for her presence.

Her father, King Valche of Allandor, met her gaze and gave her a brief nod of encouragement.

Silently, she stood. The raised voices continued about her, the majority of her Council oblivious to her displeasure. King Challon noticed her signal but did nothing to alert the other men at the table, confirming his power at this table and his silent refusal to assist her. It’d been a mistake to include him on her Council. She knew that now. The others were powerful men in their own right but not threats.

King Challon appeared to be one of her closest allies—and had saved her life years ago when Theo would have murdered her outright–but she could sense the silent, invisible undercurrents eddying about him. He had his finger in the current and knew exactly which way the waters flowed, and it certainly wasn’t to the High Queen, Rose Crown or not.

Refusing to give any sign of her displeasure, she waited in silence until the elderly King of Taza noticed that she stood. Of an age that had long ago passed, he feebly pushed to his feet in respect. “Your Majesty!”

The raised voices slowly tapered off into an awkward silence. Royce, a very young cousin of Stephan’s and so a distant nephew to King Challon, actually blushed. Phillip refused to meet her gaze, but he’d possessed a rather weak stomach with respect to her ever since he’d seen how she opened the Gates of Shanhasson with the help of her Blood.

At the thought of them, their bonds suddenly filled her mind, gleaming so brightly that her vision tinged red.

As always, Dharman stood behind her, one hand on her person nearly every minute of the day. Most of the time, she honestly forgot his presence, until some small thought made her realize how close he was, how attached and attentive. Nothing passed him; no one approached her but through him.

Sal and Jorah crouched on either side of her. She’d tried to persuade them to stand, or at least allow her to provide them with chairs, but they both refused. They wanted to be ready to grab her and carry her to the floor beneath them at a moment’s notice. Each of them occasionally touched her, just a brush of a hand, their shoulder against her hip, some small assurance that she was well and they were near. It had become so constant and engrained that she forgot them.

Until they purposely reminded her.

:Let us clear this room for you, Khul’lanna.: Sal purred in her mind, the rich pelt and smug arrogance of an adored cat winding through her mind. :Allow me to slice off that one’s ears and the rest will listen to you.:

She knew he meant Phillip, the King of Maston. As if the man knew they were thinking of him, he flushed a dull red and averted his gaze. Sal gave a little rub with his head, a quick feline brush against her waist, begging not for attention, but for permission to gut the outlander who’d insulted her years ago.

Her stomach fluttered, an uneasy and unwanted response to the glide of that incredible auburn hair gliding across her. She couldn’t feel the soft heaviness of Sal’s hair through her armor, but she knew its weight and texture, and especially its scent. Sal smelled like one yummy gingerbread cookie that simply begged to be devoured.

She’d managed to avoid devouring him for years–a feat indeed.

He rumbled softly, very much a purr of satisfaction. The damned bond told them all entirely too much. Keeping a secret from one of them was next to impossible.

:You keep secrets only from yourself, Khul’lanna.: Dharman’s mental voice was slow, thick and sweet, the dark amber of honey. He might smell sweet and innocent like honeycakes, but over the years, he’d managed to lose most of his innocence.

Thanks to me. The thought pained her. The Blood had killed numerous times to protect her, and the body counts always increased when they were in the Green Lands. Her own countrymen made the Death Rider assassins appear lazy. A Plains assassin hadn’t tried for her in over a year.

Forcing her attention back to the table of expectant men, she let a small smile curve her lips. Benton, the Steward of Far Illione who had proven instrumental in Allandor’s acquisition of swift Keldari mounts for her army, immediately relaxed and smiled in return. The poor man was inept at politics, hence his post in the very far reaches of her kingdom. The others thought little of him, but she’d placed him on her Council for a reason.

She never forgot a favor or a gesture of good faith. That trust had been ill-placed in King Challon. Hopefully Benton was more worthy of her trust.

She reached up to remove the gold crown from her head and placed it on the gleaming mahogany table before her. Intricately carved roses wound about the crown with long spiked thorns sharp enough to make her scalp bleed if she didn’t place the crown carefully.

Silence deepened in the room. The nobles stared at the symbol of her right to rule this land as if the deadliest serpent uncoiled in preparation of a vicious strike.

Keeping her voice low, soft, and pleasant, she said, “Would any of you like to wear this crown?”

Royce made a small sound very much like a whimper, Benton blanched, averting his gaze and shaking his head so hard he lost his quizzing glass, while Phillip turned green as though he might vomit beneath the table.

It’s very heavy,” she continued, keeping her manner casual. “Every day that I’m here in Shanhasson, I hesitate before putting it on my head. You see, when I’m here so very close to the Great Seal, He stirs.”

She didn’t mention His name, but every Green Lander in the room shuddered and muttered a quick prayer to Our Blessed Lady.

Lygon, the Blackest Heart of Darkness, had walked her Dreams for years, trying night after night to lure her into Shadow. She didn’t try to hide the quiver in her voice or the dread thickening her voice.

Dharman pressed fully against her back and dropped both hands to her shoulders. He held her against him, the heat of his body solid and protective.

He knows when I’m here and strains harder to break free of His prison. Each day the chains weaken and thin. Each year, He touches the world easier. Someday He will stretch out his hand…” She met King Challon’s light blue gaze, so similar to his dead nephew’s eyes. “…And simply throttle us all.”

Not unless you die, Your Majesty,” King Challon replied, thoroughly unruffled by her grim prediction. “As long as you live, your blood bars Him away from Our Blessed Lady’s Green and Beautiful Lands.”

Somehow, she thought he meant those words as a curse instead of a blessing. “So why are there so many attempts on my life each time I return to Shanhasson?”

None of them dared answer. Even King Challon broke and glanced down, avoiding the question. Someone in this room wanted her dead very badly.

Perhaps all of them.

:You know that is far from the truth.: Sal touched her again, deliberately nudging her thigh harder, a playful attempt to distract her from such grim thoughts. :I want something very badly, and I assure you, Khul’lanna, it is not your death.:

Heat crept across her cheeks, but she carefully kept her gaze up instead of looking down at the young man rubbing himself against her side. At least most of what he did was hidden beneath the table so her Council didn’t know.

Enough.” Directed at Sal, the word came out harsher than she intended. King Challon’s gaze jerked back to her face, narrowed in consideration. If a sharper tone got her Council’s attention, all the better. “Am I High Queen? Do you want my protection against Lygon’s foulness, or shall I allow His Shadow to taint you all until Our Lady’s Green Lands are destroyed utterly?”

They hesitated. They actually had to think about it.

She was losing them. Inch by inch, day by day, her Council plotted more openly against her. She lost another acre of her country to Shadow. She couldn’t be here every single day. Lady help her, the few days she managed to travel such distance from the Plains was already difficult enough. She and Rhaekhar both had extensive responsibilities to the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan. At least they treated her with some amount of respect.

Most of them, she amended. Even after three years, not all of her husband’s people welcomed an outlander in their midst.

I’m losing, she thought sadly, shaking her head. Blessed Lady, forgive me for failing you.

Sadness and guilt, regret and heartache, another brick stacked on her heart, another weight she had to carry. So many deaths lay along her path to the Rose Crown and the High Throne of the Green Lands, only to be mistrusted, doubted, and betrayed. The unfairness of it strangled her.

Without another glance, she turned away and strode toward the door. Dharman glided at her back, Sal and Jorah each at her side without a single command from her. They knew her thoughts before she did. Two Blood proceeded her; the rest trailed to protect her back from the roomful of outlanders they knew would eliminate her without a second glance.

Your Majesty! Your Crown!”

Bitterly, she replied over her shoulder, “Wear it if you dare.”

Her threat carried little weight. No one would touch it. Legends said that any man who dared lay a single finger on Our Blessed Lady’s Rose Crown would instantly fall dead. If only her enemies would dare such a foolhardy attempt then they’d all be eliminated effortlessly.

#

By the pale, tight look on her face, Rhaekhar knew her meeting had not gone well. He suppressed a sigh. If she felt his impatience to return to the Plains, then she would only feel more guilt and frustration that she kept him from his duties as Khul.

Muttering, Varne shook his head. “Why doesn’t Dharman simply gut them all?”

Amused, Rhaekhar agreed, noting the grim slant to her First Blood’s mouth and his white-knuckled grip on his rahke. Each of her Blood glowered at any and all outlanders, frustrated by their inability to punish those who didn’t support their Khul’lanna wholeheartedly. That so many of them plotted to murder her infuriated them all.

Even when Khul approached his mate they were slow to make way and allow him to touch her. As soon as she stepped foot on Green Land soil, the assassins attacked each and every day. Rhaekhar could forgive her Blood much as long as they kept her alive and well.

A tough kae’don, my heart?” Rhaekhar cupped her cheek in his hand, stroking his thumb tenderly over her lip. “May I challenge any of your Council this day?”

No,” she grumbled, burying her face against him. He felt her breathe deeply and immediately some of the tension eased from her shoulders. “If I let you kill everyone who disagreed with me, they’d all be dead.”

Perhaps you need a change in strategy.”

She raised her face, her gaze narrowed in thought.

You have tried well-reasoned arguments and bargains with men who have no honor.” Rhaekhar couldn’t keep the distaste out of his voice and didn’t try to hide it. She knew very well what each trip to the Green Lands meant to him, to her Blood, to any warrior used to wearing his honor and pride for all to see. These people had no understanding of honor. How could they, when they wished their own Queen dead? “You are a warrior at heart, Shannari dal’Dainari. Challenge them in a way they don’t expect.”

I can’t whip out my rahke and cut them into agreeing with me.” Mouth quirked, she shook her head. “They’re not warriors. They wouldn’t understand it, and certainly couldn’t meet me likewise.”

I didn’t mean a kae’rahke, na’lanna, although I admit I find the thought amusing.” His warrior woman was fierce with a blade. He proudly bore many scars from her rahke, as did her Blood. “You attempt a Market Day with curs who simply shred and gnaw your hides, oblivious to the goods you offer.”

When you bargain with Shadow, all are compromised.” At Rhaekhar’s surprised glance, Varne flushed. His nearest Blood had always been most vocal in his disapproval of an outlander Khul’lanna, so any word of wisdom was most unexpected. “Toss a bone among them, and they tear each other apart. It’s folly to linger among them.”

Dharman gave Khul’s nearest Blood a gruff nod. “I agree. Give us the word, Khul’lanna, and we shall eliminate them all.”

You cannot force them to respect me.” Shoulders drooping, she rubbed her eyes. “I must win this kae’don myself, but Lady help me, I’m losing.” Bitterly, she sharpened her voice. “I hate losing.”

Rhaekhar’s heart went out to her. All day she hid her emotions and fears, constantly wearing that proud mask he had come to despise. He dreaded each trip to the Green Lands. Not because of the time away from his homeland, but for the cost she paid in pride. It was a constant drain on her spirit to be here among her own people, and that saddened him more than he could say.

Let us return to your room, my heart.” Rhaekhar threaded her fingers in his and led her down the hallway. The twins would put a smile on her face when nothing else could. “You have neglected to join me for a Green Land bath this trip.”

She squeezed his hand and the heat in her eyes squeezed his heart in turn. He had made love to her countless times, but he would never weary of her passion. “I get to give you a massage this time.”

Your wish is my desire. However, whatever you do to me, I–”

Get to do to me, I know.” She laughed softly and leaned into him, rising on her tiptoes. He obliged by leaning down so she could whisper in his ear. “I bet I can make you lose control.”

You challenge me, na’lanna.” The rumble in his voice made her eyes darken, her lush mouth softening as she dropped her gaze to his lips. “I accept.”

Dharman bumped into her, smashing her fully against Rhaekhar. Thinking the lad meant to insinuate himself into their challenge, he growled a challenge. If she had invited her Blood, Rhaekhar would accept him without question, but he refused to tolerate a warrior’s interruption, not even one as close and loved by her.

Turning toward Dharman, she opened her mouth to take the lad to task, but the harsh look on his face stalled her retort. He gripped her close, tucking her against him while backing them both tightly against Rhaekhar. Someone cried out and the Blood didn’t hesitate. He took her to the ground and covered her protectively with his body.

Rhaekhar let her go else find himself on the cold tile as well. His own Blood pressed closer but Varne’s manner of protection was much different. Rahke in hand, he took up stance shoulder to shoulder with Khul and the other eight Blood, wary but not alarmed. They all knew to whom any threat would be aimed, and she was safe beneath her nearest Blood.

A crossbow bolt quivered in the wooden doorframe, not a hand’s span from where her head and been moments ago. Immediately, he glanced down at her, but he couldn’t see anything but her Blood’s broad back covering her.

Great Vulkar,” Rhaekhar ground out, gripping his rahke but not drawing it. There was no need: her golden-haired Blood, Jorah, charged after the assassin. “Will she never have any peace?”

Varne shook his head. “Not while she returns to these Green Lands.”

Listening to her na’lanna bond, Rhaekhar searched for any hint of pain to make sure she hadn’t been wounded. He trusted her Blood implicitly, and they would take any wound to her body, no matter how small, as a grave failure. All Blood possessed a fierce sense of honor, but Khul’lanna’s Blood extremely so. Only lads when Vulkar had sent them to her side, they had never worn their own kae’valda and never would.

Until she dies.

Rhaekhar pushed that horrible fear away. He’d already sworn to die before her. If Vulkar called her home to His Clouds early, Khul would ride at her side.

He felt a wrenching in her bond, an unexpected emotion. At first, he thought she had picked up on his grim thoughts of death, but Dharman jerked his attention down to her. Whatever he saw, the lad dropped his body fully against hers instead of politely hovering above her.

There was no mistaking the surge of physical response through her bond. Rhaekhar hold his breath a moment, and then let it out, slow and steady. He’d known this day would come eventually. She was too close to her young Blood to ever deny them her heart and body for long. That she’d made it so many years since she claimed them had astounded him.

He still didn’t like the thought. She was his, his na’lanna and Khul’lanna. She carried his honor and had borne him two children. That another warrior encroached on Khul’s woman sent a rush of…

Rhaekhar breathed deeply again. Not jealousy or rage, not exactly. If she loved another, he would see to her need, as he’d done with Gregar, but he’d been different. The laughing Shadowed Blood had been his friend and protector for years before they even set eyes on the outlander who would own their hearts.

Gregar had been his; Dharman would only ever be hers.

A sense of finality washed over Rhaekhar, and he felt a moment of weakness. His knees trembled enough that he leaned his weight against the wall. He suddenly felt as old as his nearly forty years, every kae’don and kae’rahke he’d battled, the scars he carried, the sheer weight of honor he carried weighing him, dragging him.

Great Vulkar, he prayed silently. I beg you, don’t call me home yet.

#

After years of agony and yearning, the untouchable mated woman Dharman had loved since the first moment he met her looked upon him as a warrior and not a lad. Her lips pressed against his chest, her breathing ragged, her heart pounding so hard in his head through the Blood bond that he couldn’t hear. He managed to give a quick signal to Sal, alerting him to his own incapacitation as her First Blood.

How could he think to protect her with his blood pounding so hard his skull threatened to crack open? She arched beneath him, and Dharman nearly died at her soft cry of desire. Tightening his arms around her, he breathed the words against her lips. “At last.”

She shuddered, her fingers digging into his back. Emotions tore through her, no secret to him through the bond. She was shocked, afraid, guilty, her first thought of Khul and how he might feel. All these emotions Dharman knew and expected. Yet overpowering it all was the fierce ache in her body. That she would need him so much…

Him.

After all these years.

He couldn’t resist a slow rock of his hips, giving her his weight, the grind of his hips against hers. She made a low sound of need that rocked through his mind. Thick, sultry roses, heated by her desire, clogged his nostrils. She wants me.

Sal placed his palm on Dharman’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to help break through his physical instinct that demanded a quick, hard thrust to claim her as his before she changed her mind. He remembered their location, and most of all, the extremely close presence of her mate. Before he could do anything, he must request permission else find himself challenged by the greatest warrior on the Plains.

All clear,” Sal murmured, his low voice aching with yearning. Would she respond to him the same way?

As lads, they had sworn an oath in blood, deeper than brothers, deeper than Camp loyalty, deeper, even than honor, for at the time, they’d possessed none. With Khul’lanna bleeding and close to death on the ground between them, Dharman had known one thing and sworn it to Sal.

Where he went, so too, did Sal. If she didn’t want the red-haired Blood, Dharman would not go to Khul’s blankets, either, no matter how much he wanted to love her.

Deliberately, Dharman rolled off to the side and allowed the other Blood to assist her. Of course, Sal–as wicked and salacious as Gregar had ever thought to be–took advantage of her rather dazed and needy state. Sal backed her into the wall, shielding her with his body with admirable determination that no assassin steel should touch her without first sliding through his flesh.

Without even seeing her face, Dharman knew the way her breath caught in her chest, her throat tight, the scent of spice in her nose that felt as familiar to her as his own scent. Unerringly, her mouth found the mark on Sal’s throat that she’d placed an eternity ago, her teeth in his throat, his blood hers to command.

Dharman stood and met Khul’s fierce gaze. Squaring his shoulders with determination, he strode to him, ignoring the glower of Khul’s Blood. He knew Khul had felt her response. No thought or need passed through her mind and heart that her bonded warriors didn’t feel, whether Blood or na’lanna or both. She simply didn’t know it yet.

Khul, may I challenge for right as co-mate?”

As soon as we return to the Plains.” Khul replied curtly. “Sal, too?”

Aye.” Despite his confidence, Dharman felt a twinge of…not fear exactly, but wary respect. Khul would make him earn the right to come to his blankets. The kae’rahke between Khul and Gregar before she’d accepted the Shadowed Blood was burned into Dharman’s mind. “Where I go, he goes.”

Khul glanced at her. Relieved and reassured that she would want him as much as his friend, Sal had backed off and allowed her to push away from the wall. She stared at Khul, pale, her midnight blue eyes large and dark with her emotions. Khul’lanna was not a woman to run from any battle, no matter how grim, but this kae’don threatened to tear her apart. She gripped the rahke on her hip and thought seriously about challenging both of her Blood.

Dharman sent some of his eagerness through her bond and her eyes widened even more with alarm. A little blood would only inflame them all the more.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. Misery filled her, regret and anger and unwanted need wrenching her heart, tangling her bonds into knots in her mind. After all these years of serving as nearest Blood, Dharman had yet to understand her reluctance to admit any love, let alone the love she felt for anyone but Khul.

I will not pressure her this time,” Khul said, drawing Dharman’s attention. At least Khul’s face had softened with acceptance, touched with wry sympathy. “I forced her to admit her feelings for Gregar, only because he swore he would not live long. I chose to bear her anger rather than any long-held regrets that she’d never loved him as he deserved. I won’t do it again.”

Dharman hadn’t expected any assistance. He certainly knew Khul’lanna well enough to accept that simply because she’d felt desire for him and Sal that she would not immediately ask them both to Khul’s blankets. In fact, he expected the reverse. Her reluctance to hurt Khul in any way was too great. “How much leeway do I have to convince her myself?”

Khul grinned widely and slapped him on the back. “As much as you dare, lad.” He paused, ignoring Khul’lanna’s sharp inhale and fierce surge of ire through their bonds. “Nay, you’re a lad no longer. If you desire to win your way to my blankets, warrior, then you are welcome to try through any means you deem necessary.”

Over my dead body.” Khul’lanna advanced on Khul and shoved him in the chest. The mighty warrior didn’t even budge. “You’re not going to simply stand there and let them…”

Nag you?” Sal asked brightly.

Her cheeks flooded with color. She whirled, but froze. A flood of nausea swamped her bond.

Dharman immediately stepped up to her, his senses alert. Sal took her other side, all thoughts of co-mates and finally making love to her wiped from their minds. They scanned the hallway, seeking any shadow or threat that would clutch her stomach with such fierce cramps of sickness reserved for the darkest, most tainted Shadow, but all they saw were the twins.

Nearly three years old, Rhyra and Anya ran toward their mother, hair sungold and dark sable respectively. No one questioned the stamp of each child’s parentage. Both as lovely as their mother with dark-blue eyes, Rhyra was obviously Khul’s daughter, while Anya was the Shadowed Blood’s. Khul’lanna might have only taken Gregar to Khul’s blankets the one time before he died, but his gift lived on his daughter.

Both girls had sticky faces and hands, as though they’d been eating a special sweet, and Rhyra held a small china plate.

Whatever was on that plate made Khul’lanna stagger. Lunging forward, she smacked it out of her daughter’s hands and fell to her knees, retching and crying.

Mama, Mama,” the girls cried, clutching her.

You didn’t eat that, did you?” She cupped Rhyra’s face and stared deeply into her eyes. Dharman felt a wash of cold spring water fill their bond, the Lady’s power rushing through her blood. She turned to Anya. “Did you?”

Nay, Mama, but Sara’s sick. She fell down.”

Oh, Lady.” Khul’lanna wrapped her arms around the girls and hugged them tight. She looked up at Dharman, desperate horror shadowing her eyes despite the gleam of her tears. “Someone tried to poison my babies.”

Friday Snippet: Return to Shanhasson

Since I’ve been working on this project for Revision Hell, I thought I’d share the opening prologue now that I’ve polished and smoothed it a bit.  I’m not one for prologues, usually, but these two sections set up the massive conflict of the entire book.  So much foreshadowing lies in wait in these words.  Keldar–the world of Survive My Fire and The Fire Within–will truly collide with the Green Lands in this book, bringing the entire story full circle.

Prologue to Return to Shanhasson, book 3 in the Blood & Shadows series.

In a wasteland of blasting sun and endless thirst, the man who’d used a thousand names and lived a thousand lives in Shadow stretched out on his face in blistering sand.  Above, a massive twisted spire stabbed the sky.  Poisoned waters hissed and bubbled around the tiny island.  His inflamed, festering flesh bore testimony to the acidic hatred of this place.

He choked on oven-hot air, his throat and mouth desiccated.  After dying countless times, he couldn’t even remember his original name any longer.  He’d lost all sense of time and place.  He rubbed his thumb against the small twisted iron ring on his pinky finger and shivered despite the baking heat.  Soon, he would have a new name, a new body, but his purpose was always the same.

Here in these savage lands of brutal death and endless thirst, the Great Lord didn’t need a sacrifice before He could stretch out His hand to touch and mold the world to His will.  They lived His Shadow every single day. 

It’s the perfect place for a new beginning. 

Lygon–or Yama, as the savages knew Him–moved through his mind.  It felt as though rancid oil soaked through every pore and crevice of his body.

WHAT NEWS, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT?

He didn’t try to speak aloud; there was no need.  The Great Lord of Shadow could pull any secret thought from a man’s heart without effort.  Instead, he let the words ring in his head.  :Forgive me, Great Lord, but your son, Theo, the High King of the Green Lands, is dead.:

HERE IN THESE CURSED LANDS, ALL ARE MY SONS.

The ground shook, a merciless groan of laughter forced through the imprisoned earth.  Yama might taint the Spire and Venom Lake, but the rest of the Trinity exacted Their punishment on Keldar fiercer than any other land in the world.

Fools, he thought.  It was much better to plot according to a God’s will–even the Blackest Heart of Shadow–and live than risk eternal punishment and suffering.  However, there was one small catch.  He needed a new body, a new life, which only Yama could provide.

I will be Keldari this time

The thought sent an unaccustomed shiver of dread down his spine.  He’d been many men and lived many lives, some more vile than others, but he’d never actually carried a beast within him.

:What would you have me do, Great Lord?:

YOUR PURPOSE HAS NOT CHANGED.  I WANT her FILLIES OF THAT CURSED BLOOD EITHER BUTCHERED OR CORRUPTED BY OURS, BUT MOST OF ALL, I WANT A SON TO SOIL THAT SHINING BLOOD WITH MY OWN.  I WILL TAINT her LAST DAUGHTER FOR ALL TIME.

HERE IN THESE ENDLESS SANDS, BECOME ONE OF MY SONS AND CORRUPT HER YOURSELF.

Despite the blazing heat and burns on his body, he couldn’t help the shiver from head to toe at the thought.  She had never been part of his reward, not directly at least.  The Great Lord was jealous of His prizes, and the Last Daughter was the greatest prize of all.

He must be absolutely certain.  :You wish me to train one of your Keldari sons to corrupt her?:

NO ONE WILL BREAK HER BETTER THAN YOU.  IF YOU ARE WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE, THIS TIME YOU WILL BE REBORN KELDARI.

Something that might have been praise poured through him, although it was blackest night and smelled of rotting flesh.  There was no greater reward from the Great Lord.  He’d never hoped to be given this last, most important task of all.  :I will pay any price to drag her into Your Shadow.  What of her barbarian husband?:

Shrieking laughter crashed through his skull like boulders tumbling from the highest mountain.  THE HORSE KING WILL NOT LIVE FOREVER.  I NEED DO NOTHING TO SPEED HIS DEATH.  THE HORSE GOD CALLS HIS SON HOME TO WHINNEY AND CAVORT IN THE CLOUDS, WHILE HIS WOMAN SUFFERS ALONE.

ALONE, UNTIL YOU ARE PREPARED.

:I am ready, Great Lord, to do Your will, no matter how dark, no matter how painful.:

A painful, metallic shriek sliced against stone directly above him.  Slowly, he lifted his head, craning his neck to look up at the black rock rising above him.  At first, he couldn’t see anything, not in the moonless night.  The screeching came again, only feet away.  Shards of black glass stabbed his upturned face.

A massive claw seized his shoulder.  Talons sank into his flesh, grinding on bone.  The beast lifted him off the ground. 

Feathers and leathered scales filled the night, a stink of corpses roasting in the desert heat.  Red serpentine eyes glowed like burning cinders, searing him with hatred.  The beast lowered its head:  foul breath in his face, teeth as long as small swords, salvia drizzling on his flesh, hissing and popping like acid. 

Yet he didn’t cry out.  Pay any price, he’d said, and he meant it. 

IN THE LAND OF BURNING SANDS, THIS IS MY FORM.  THIS IS MY GIFT TO YOU.  LET her SHINING SYMBOL REMIND YOU OF YOUR PURPOSE.  WELCOME TO KELDAR, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT.

The dragon opened its jaws wide and closed its mouth over his head.  He couldn’t help but scream as the beast devoured him.

#

He opened his eyes and winced at the brilliant sun making its climb in the sky.  So hot, so fierce; he’d never felt the heat of the sun so miserably until he’d come to…

Startled, he jerked upright.  A black dragon was sprawled on the sands, already decaying.  The smell of roasted meat was thick in his nostrils.  A young man hacked beneath the beast’s chin and removed two small dripping sacs.  By his baggy trousers, fancy coat and wide-brimmed hat shading his eyes from the miserable heat, he must be a Far Illione trader.  Likely a well-to-do son with decent breeding, making a dollar or two for his family, hoping to find a way to escape this hellhole and make his way to court.

How do I know this?

“A foul beast.”  The man grimaced.  “Prepare the oil, and then I’ll ensure it’s delivered directly to her hands.”  He turned, pale eyes sharp as steel.  “What’s the matter?”

He blinked at the other man, trying to decide whether he could trust him or not.  Nausea burned up his throat.  His entire body screamed with remembered pain from rending teeth and claws.  He distinctly remembered a dragon eating him, ripping him limb from limb, but then the dragon had folded up, somehow, and slipped…inside out

Ice picks darted deep into his skull and he couldn’t stifle the cry of pain.

“Can you keep your part of the bargain?”

“What…”  He swallowed, wincing at the blades shredding his dry throat.  “What bargain?”

The other man harrumphed and squatted beside him.  He didn’t neglect to note the blade in the man’s hand, stained with blood.  The putrid musk leaking from the sacs made him gag.

 “You’re going to make a seductive oil that the High Queen of the Green Lands will find very, very amusing to be sure,” the man spoke slowly, as if he were too stupid to understand.  “Then you must find a way to get your lazy dirty hide to Shanhasson, into her Court, and then, ultimately, into her bed.  Simple, iyeh?” 

The last word was spat forcefully, a mockery, if only he knew what it meant.

Breathing deeply, he forced his body to accept the foreign odors of this place:  the rotting dragon, the stink of its glands dripping some noxious fluid onto the blasted sands; the rank body odor of the man beside him; and the scent of his own body, sweat mixed with an exotic spice he couldn’t quite place. 

It smelled…right, that scent, soothing his unease.  It was his scent, blending with the reek of the dragon until even it smelled right.

Mine. 

His stomach calmed, as well as his mind.  The High Queen of the Green Lands was definitely someone he knew.  The dragon had surely been a dream.  Now, if he could only remember…

“Tell me, my young friend,” he began casually, but the trader’s eyes widened with shock.

“Your voice.”  Suspicion narrowed the trader’s eyes and he drew back warily.  “No Keldari talks like that.”

He kept his face smooth and unconcerned, even though his mind lurched.  Keldar, yes, the place of dragons, poisoned sands, and savages.  He glanced down and noted the rough black garb he wore, the curved blade on the sand beside him, covered in dried blood.  Lightly, he touched his head, trying to remember how he’d killed the dragon.  “The dragon must have knocked me unconscious.  I’m afraid I don’t remember much at all.  What’s my name?”

The trader inched backward, his hands smoothing the fine linen of his shirt.  “Mykal.”   

A dull black ring on the man’s right hand sucked at the brutal sunlight, a black hole of evil that made him narrow his gaze in recognition.  Odd, wasn’t it, that he recognized a ring but not his supposed name? 

“You’re Mykal tal’Mamba.”

Ah, it was beginning to come back to him.  Tal, chief, he knew, of the tribe of Mambas.  Appropriately named, to be sure, for the mamba was the deadliest snake in all the desert.  Before the thought had even crystallized in his mind, his body exploded up with the curved blade in his hand.  He knocked the young man to his back and planted a knee on his throat.  “I’ll uphold this bargain, munakur, else the sands swallow me for all time.”

Wheezing, the man flailed at him with the knife, but Mykal effortlessly blocked the blade with his own.  This man had never been skilled with a blade; he knew that, now, as he also knew that he himself could dance the blades with any warrior on the sands and best him.  Cocking his head, he let his gaze travel down the man’s fancy clothing to fine leather boots and back up. 

His gaze stopped on the ring.  He stared a moment, and then deliberately examined the dragon corpse.  Its left front paw had been hacked, its claw missing.  “I believe you took something that belongs to me.”

Babbling choked entreaties, the man’s cries rose to a wail as the scimitar cut through his pinky.  Mykal picked up one of the leaking sacs and dropped it into the man’s wounded hand.  He howled, heels drumming on the sands, but the fluid cauterized the bleeding stump.

“Go to Shanhasson.”  Mykal claimed both sacs for himself and shook the severed finger from the ring.  Closing his eyes, he slipped it onto his left hand.  The ring fit his finger perfectly, as he expected.  Sands shifted within him, settling, filling up the empty spots of his memory.  Without opening his eyes, he unhooked the leather packet–which he now remembered preparing with his own hands–from his belt and dropped it onto the trader’s chest.  “Trade my oil to Her Majesty.”

He let the young man scramble away, cradling his wounded hand to his chest.  His pretty white shirt was ruined, stained by blood and burned by the dragon musk. 

Raising his voice, Mykal yelled after the fleeing trader.  “Tell Shannari dal’Dainari that soon I’ll soar over her Shining Walls!”  He rubbed his thumb over the ring and dropped his voice to a whisper.  “I have a purpose.” 

NaNoWriMo: Day 30 Final #Victor Snippet

Despite just a little over 4 hours of sleep, I’m alive this morning and working on getting the monsters out the door for school.  I’ll post one last snippet from Victor, and then I’ll have to find something else to entertain you for Friday Snippets.  It might be January before I start that tradition up again, because Dec. will be finishing Victor and Revision Hell, on not one but two books.

First up, it’s past time for me to revise Return to Shanhasson, last year’s NaNo novel that took me until Dec. 23 to finish (105K).  I have something I’d like to try, and I can’t do it unless this book is ready to go.  If it works out, I’ll post details later.

After Victor has sat for a couple of weeks, I’ll be ready to tackle him again.  My goal is to have both books submitted by the end of January.  Then it’ll be back to Deathright full steam ahead, in conjunction with Seven Crows.

In this snippet, I introduce Mama Connagher, a woman to strike the terror into any daughter in law.  Well, hopefully.  Unedited, first NaNoWriMo (shitty) draft.  This happens after the dark moment when Victor thinks he’s lost it all.

Virginia Connagher waited on the wraparound porch as though she’d known her son was coming home, even though he hadn’t made the hour drive up from Dallas in months.  She wore the same thing she always did:  riding jodhpurs, English riding boots, and a spotless white shirt, even though her hands and knees were dirty from digging in her garden.  Her black hair was sprinkled with a bit more gray, her eyes lined with a few more wrinkles, but her eyes still snapped with the fiery spirit that had captured Tyrell Connagher’s heart forty years ago.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Son.”  She looked him up and down and he couldn’t help but straighten his shoulders and widen his stance.  He braced for her to begin questioning him, but instead, she smiled.  “Come on down to the stables and see the new foals.”

Relieved although he tried not to show it, Victor walked with her down the red-dirt road to the long horse barns behind the house.  She proudly showed off the new stud she’d shipped in from Ireland, the yearlings in the paddock, and bit by bit, he managed to relax.  The smells of sweet hay, feed, and horse were as familiar to him as the two-story farmhouse where he’d grown up.  He’d worked with Mama in the show ring and Daddy in the fields, rounding up the cattle and shipping them to market.  He’d ridden every inch of their acreage, spent hours with Conn down at the creek fishing and swimming, and fixed countless feet of fence with him and Daddy after a storm had knocked a few trees down.

Watching a sleek bay mare with her spindle-legged baby, he felt the last stone of guilt fall away.  Here, he knew exactly who he was.  He was the Victor, the oldest Connagher son, football champion, and proud of his hard-working parents.  Maybe he could convince Shiloh to drive out here with him.  If she saw him here, the real Victor, then maybe…

“I saw your show last night,” Mama said, her voice too careful for him to tell what she’d really thought about it.

He propped a boot up on the bottom rail but didn’t turn to look at her.  “What’d you think?”

“I was wishing your Daddy could watch it with me so we could recreate a few of those challenges ourselves.”

Victor practically choked on his tongue.

Mama chuckled at the look on his face.  “Surely you wondered where you got such an inclination.  Did you think I’d be horrified at my baby boy with a crop in his hand?”

“Yeah, I did,” he admitted sheepishly.  “I guess I should have known better when Conn called me a few years ago for help.”

Nodding, Mama leaned against the fence and turned that steely blue gaze on him.  “He’s not as hard as you.  He never was.”

“Not as mean, neither.”

“Oh, Victor, is that what you think?  That you’re mean?”

I’m one mean sonofabitch, Mama.  I like to hurt people.  Especially the woman I love.

He ground his teeth and averted his gaze.

“I suppose you think I’m mean, then.”

That made him jerk his gaze back to hers.  Just a few inches over five feet tall, she possessed the kind of quiet, commanding presence that made people snap to attention whenever she walked into a room.  No one would claim she was a ravishing beauty, but once someone met her, it was hard to take their eyes off her.

Reluctantly, he had to admit it was the same kind of power he’d always had.  People listened to him.  He never had to raise his voice, and if he did, he scared the shit out of people.  He’d always assumed he’d inherited that top-dog attitude from Daddy.

Thinking back over his childhood, he tried to remember a time when Mama had ever overruled Daddy.  They’d always worked like a team, smooth and well-oiled.  Daddy wasn’t a big talker, but he’d always handled the discipline.  A look from him could strike terror into the most recalcitrant boy’s heart, so he’d never gotten into much trouble beyond the normal boyhood scrapes.  They’d both been there for him, through heartache and disappointments, like when he’d blown his knee and kissed his future goodbye.

They’d seen him at the lowest point of his life.  His dreams turned to shame, his love lost, his victor’s heart broken.

His gaze fell on the old barn in the distance.  Worn gray wood still stood, lost and forgotten amidst the shiny redwood and white picket fences of the newer horse barns.  When his last hope of returning as a pro-quality quarterback had died, he’d retreated to that old barn, too ashamed to come home and face Daddy.  Too heartbroken to risk their pity.

“As soon as I noticed my old crop was missing from the barn, I should have had a talk with you,” Mama whispered, her voice as gentle as the hand she dropped onto his forearm braced on the fence.  “But you’d been through so much already, and you didn’t ask any questions.  I watched, I waited, and you seemed to move on with your life.  When Conn went to you for help, I thought you were settled and comfortable with your needs, but maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I should have talked more openly with you.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing a man wants to discuss with his mother.”

She laughed again, shaking her head.  “You could have asked your Daddy, but he could have only helped you understand the other side.”

That made him whip his head back to her face.  “Daddy was a submissive?”

She snorted.  “There wasn’t a submissive bone in your Daddy’s body.  He never wanted to be conquered or tied up.  He wasn’t into that kind of game and neither was I.”

Dreading her answer, Victor asked, “What were you into?”

“Pain,” she answered simply.  “I used to joke that a bronc rider would have to be a masochist to get back on after getting trampled a few times.”

Victor tried to think of something to say, but he couldn’t.  He couldn’t imagine his weathered father submitting to the sting of a lash, let alone asking for it.  The man had worked from sunup to sundown every day of his life, raised three God-fearing respectful children, and died loving only one woman his entire life.  Victor had always thought him the strongest man in the world, fearless on a horse, even the wildest, rawest green broke mare.  He just couldn’t imagine the same man asking someone–a woman, his wife, no less–to whip him.

“Do you think I liked knowing that I yearned to hurt your Daddy?”  Mama asked sharply, her fingers tightening on his arm.  For a woman, she had a fearsome grip.  He’d always assumed her strength came from a lifetime of training show horses, but now he wasn’t so sure.  “Do you think it made him feel like a man in our day and age?  To lock the door of our bedroom, strip off his shirt, grip the bedpost, and ask me to whip him within an inch of my life?  I had to, son.  He had to.  The need was there, eating away at him constantly.  He needed the pain as much as I needed to give it.”

She turned away, but not before Victor saw the sheen of tears in her eyes.  “He said once that he wished I were a man so my arm didn’t give out quite so quickly.  He’d meant it as a joke, but it hurt, son.  He could have taken much more than I could ever give him.  For years, I worked out with the whip and crop, training my arms and body to make sure I met his need to the best of my ability.  So don’t you look down on yourself, Victor Connagher, or you’re looking down on me and his memory.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone, least of all someone I love,” Victor whispered, hanging his head in shame.

“The young lady on the show?”  Mama asked softly.  He nodded, so she said, “When do I get to meet her?”

“Maybe never.  She left me.”

“I saw the way she looked at you, son.  Even on television, I could see that woman would give her heart and soul just to see you smile.  So why would she leave you?”

“She needs more than I can give.”

“Can, or will?”

He growled deep in his throat and jerked his hair tighter, but the pain didn’t help.  Not this time.  Nothing would ease the raw, aching need burning in his gut.  Nothing but Shiloh.

“It’s got to be difficult for a woman to find the right man when she needs to be hurt.  Women in our society have fought tooth and nail to get to the place where they can demand what they want in bed, but pain is a different beast all together.  It’s not politically correct for a woman to play the submissive, but it’s somehow even more horrible if she needs pain, too.  If someone had dared hurt Ty in a way he wasn’t interested in, he would’ve plowed his fist into the bastard’s face.  What’s your woman supposed to do, son?  Walk up to a stranger and ask him to hurt her?  How’s she going to be able to get him to stop when she’s had enough?”

Rage exploded in Victor at the thought of another man laying a hand–or a whip–on Shiloh.  He wanted to hold her, love her, and yes, hurt her.  Exactly the way she needed it.

“If she needs to be hurt, son, then it’s better done by someone who loves her and cares for her wellbeing than an arrogant fool with a whip who doesn’t give a damn about anything but putting on a show.  Do you love her?”

Victor clenched his jaws and nodded.  God, yes, he loved her.  He hadn’t been able to sleep last night, tormenting himself with the memory of the pleasure she’d given him, mixed with the guilt.  He’d lain there all night, hating himself but rock hard and aching with the need to do it all over again.  All I could think about was how f*cking good it’d felt to hurt her.

“You can’t deny this side of you, son.  You’re only lying to yourself.”  Mama  gripped his upper arms, leaning closer so she could stare up into his eyes.  He might be a foot taller, but she made him feel like a little boy again.  “We didn’t raise you to be a liar or a quitter.  You might have lost a game, but everything’s on the line now.  This is the biggest game of your life.  You’ve searched your whole life for a woman who could love you and accept the pain you need to give.  Are you going to let her get away?”

He smiled, not the nice, gentle smile a son would give his mother, but the grin of a confident conqueror bent on razing his enemy to the ground.  Even–especially–my own stupid hang-ups. “No, ma’am.”

“You go get her, son, and you bring her home this very night.  I want to meet the woman who finally claimed my Victor’s heart.”

“Soon,” he promised, leaning down to kiss her cheek.  “But not tonight.  We have to finish taping the show first.”

“Then you’ll bring her to the ranch?”

“If she’ll come, yes.”

“Remember, give her the pain you both need, son, but hurt her with love and hold her when you’re done.”  Mama smiled back and Victor felt a chill dripping down his spine.  “And don’t worry.  She’ll come, or I’ll fetch her myself.”

Friday Snippet: #Victor

I’m going to try and keep doing Friday Snippets, but they have to be shorter and may potentially skip around.  In this snippet, Shiloh discovers a large portrait of Victor in the owner’s office at Silken, the BDSM club.  First draft only, etc.

He wore jeans, the pants’ legs tucked into his trademark boots, and a simple light-colored shirt unbuttoned to his waist so it hung open, baring the bulge of his pectorals sprinkled with dark hair.  Long sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, giving her a good look at his muscled forearms.  Even from ten feet away, she could see the lines of tendons and veins beneath his skin, the promise of strength and skill with the long crop in his right hand.  Oh, God, his hands, those broad palms, long, graceful fingers, explosive power in every inch—they drew her eyes like magnets.

He stood with his right foot up in a chair, his right elbow braced on his knee, the crop held casually—but prominently—in his hand.  He wore a black hat with a silver band.  An old-fashioned gun belt rode low on his hips with ornate pistols holstered on each side.  In his left hand, he held a coiled lasso.  He was prepared to wrestle a steer into submission, hang a horse rustler…or whip a sub within an inch of her life.

Dark hollows beneath his eyes carved out the harsh planes of his face, giving him a wicked, grim look that made her tummy quiver.  His eyes burned with hunger, an unquenchable need that would never be satisfied.  That look promised harsh punishment, no tenderness, no softness whatsoever.

Why did I ever picture him dressed as an English lord?

If she’d seen this photograph before devising the show, she would have done the whole damned thing as a Western so he could keep his boots.

Friday Snippet: #Victor

This is the last longer snippet I can do, but I’ll try to torment you with little NaNo snippets throughout the month.  First draft, etc. etc.

“What I want,” he growled out, turning to face her with his most intimidating glare, “is for you to quit playing with me.”

He cursed his poor word choice as soon as they left his lips.

Laughing softly, she stood and began to gather up her presentation.  “I haven’t even begun playing with you yet.”

Damn it all to hell, she gave him her back.  To him!  Uncaring, unafraid, with a little flirty glance over her shoulder, she walked toward the door with her storyboards tucked under her arm.

He pounced, seized her in unforgiving hands, and slammed her against the wall.  He pinned her with his body, using every inch of his taller, stronger, muscled frame to punish her for such audacity, grinding her against the wall.  Storyboards tumbled to the floor.

And the little saucy wench arched into him with a welcoming sigh.

Dropping his forehead against hers, he sucked in a breath and held it for a count of ten, tightening the reins of his control.  “Save it for the show, or I’m going to drag you off to my dungeon and torture you to my heart’s content.”

“Promises, promises.”

He couldn’t help but laugh then.  God, her spirit was unflappable.  “You don’t know what kind of player I am.  I’m on the edge, baby, and as heavy as you can take it.  And then, since I’m a selfish, cruel bastard, I’m going to take you even further.”  He swallowed hard and forced the words out.  “I want to hurt you real bad.”

“Good,” she purred.

“Damn it, don’t you know the difference between sensual pain and downright injured?  Give me some space and time to–”

“Yes, sir.”

He pulled back enough to look into her eyes.  Had he been away from serious play for so long that he’d forgotten the most basic elements of a scene?  Of course she’d rather have his orders.  “On the show, I’m Master V.”  She nodded, staring at him intently.  “Your Master.”

Her body sagged against him and she buried her face against his neck.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Off the show, I’m Victor, your boss and the producer of our show.  No playing, no taunting, all business.”

“And after the show?”

Reluctantly, he backed away, keeping his hands on her until he was sure she was steady on her feet.  She looked up at him with such hope and longing in her eyes that his throat closed off.  He couldn’t breathe.  It’d been so long since a woman had looked at him like that, as though he was her entire world.  As though she’d die if she failed to please him.

“If I haven’t scared you away yet,” he replied, his voice gruff with emotion, “then, God help you, you’re mine.”

Bending down to pick up her scattered boards, she flashed a smile that melted his heart.  The curve of her slim spine and the rounded swell of her buttocks outlined by her skirt made his hand clench in longing for his crop.  “I don’t scare easily, Mr. Connagher.”

“You don’t know me yet, Ms. Holmes.  Now make your escape before I change my mind.”

“If nothing else, you’ve certainly given me incentive to make sure we’re taping as soon as possible.  Don’t be surprised if you get a call to begin this afternoon.”

“Tomorrow is soon enough for taping.  Use Mal to help you get the resources you need, and if either of you have problems, call me.  A few scenes at Silken will be fine, but see if Mal can get creative with a set here.  I’d prefer to spend as little time at the club as possible.”

“All right.  Anything else?”

“Stop by this evening around seven o’clock and fill me in on where everything is.  I live here in the penthouse, and I’ll tell Léon to let you in.”  

He could see the conflicting thoughts flickering in her eyes: a rush of raw lust that she might get him alone in his home warred against uncertainty about another man.  He didn’t fault her for being wary—she couldn’t possibly know his sexual preferences.  Something he hoped to correct very, very soon.  “Léon is my personal assistant and chef.  He’s a friend and employee, nothing more.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any right to question you.”

“Yes, you do.  I have no intention of sharing you, Shiloh, not with another man, not with another Dominant, no one.  I warned you I was a selfish bastard.”

Relaxing, she laughed.  “That kind of selfishness I approve of.”

She paused at the door, her teasing laughter fading to something much more serious.  In a slow, sensuous perusal, she ran her gaze over him.  He could feel the passing of her chocolate gaze like a flaming physical touch, lingering on his throat, shoulders, biceps, and hands.  He knew exactly what she was doing: Assessing the strength of his arm, his ability to deliver a blow exactly where he wanted it, and the formidable might of his will.  He squared his shoulders, widening his stance and shifting his weight back on his heels so the heavy bulge in his pants was prominent and obvious.

With her eyes locked on his groin, she asked in a husky voice, “What if I don’t win top sub for you?” 

“You will, or I’m no Master.”

She jerked her gaze up to his face, her eyes smoldering, her lips as soft and full as though she’d been kissed thoroughly—or had put her mouth to good use.  “To the Victor belong the spoils.” 

Friday Snippet: #Victor

Continuing from last week’s section, first draft, etc.

Hauled up and tossed into a chair, Shiloh sat shaken and confused, staring at Mr. Connagher as he paced back and forth.  She cradled her throbbing hand in her lap.  Each thud of her heart spread that pain like a pulse through her body, melting her bones and priming her for his full attention.

What did I do wrong?

“When we’re alone, then you can call me Victor, a mean sonofabitch, or a low-down dirty bastard, anything you want.”  He jerked to a halt and whirled to face her, his eyes blazing.  “But we need to take care that you’re alone with me as little as possible.”

“I don’t understand,” she said carefully.  “Are you not…available?”

He jerked his hair tighter, and she winced in sympathy for his tortured scalp.  He must have one hell of a headache.  “I’m so available I’m about to tear the seams in my pants.”

Studying his hair kept her gaze from wandering lower to see just how available he might be.   He hadn’t made any outright claims on her, so she didn’t feel like she had the right to ogle him.  Yet.  

“It will be safer for us both if we limit our interaction to the show, at least until I’ve been able to take some of the edge off.”

He looked so glum, then, that she started to rise so she could wrap her arms around him.  Throwing up his hand to ward her off, he resumed his furious pacing while he slapped his right thigh aimlessly.  Her skin heated, tingling with longing.  She wanted those slaps on her body, not his.

The longer he paced, the more he began to favor his left knee, until his limp was pronounced. Victor Connagher had been a college football star on the verge of the NFL when he’d blown his knee in the championship game.  Pictures from his glory days were in the case downstairs.  By all accounts, he would have been a star for any professional team. 

Tears burned her eyes.  Until now, she’d never seen him display any weakness, any hint that the old injury still pained him.

Finally he growled out, “I don’t want to go too fast for you.”

“Too fast?”  She laughed, but it came out harsh to her ears.  “I’ve been planning this show for months, hoping, praying you might…”

That you might need me as badly as I need you. 

Although she’d often seen him around VCONN Tower, she didn’t know how to approach him while at work.  It was just too sleazy for her to come on to him as she’d joked. She’d even gone to a mixer hosted by the bondage club to get an introduction, but the frenzied feeding-ground atmosphere just wasn’t her style.  Besides, he hadn’t been there, neither.  During her research, she’d scanned Silken’s current membership roster, but it hadn’t included his name, which didn’t really surprise her.  Many prominent members would rather keep their names secret or at least low key, which was one of the reasons she’d devised a show where everyone could wear masks. 

Fantasizing about him had only made her attraction worse.  Nothing could touch the aching black hole that expanded day by day deep in her belly.  The pain in her hand only served to wake up that miserable, ravenous monster.  She wanted him with that riding crop in his hand, wicked and hard and wild.  After he’d put that image in her mind, nothing and nobody else would do.

 “How else was I supposed to introduce myself as an interested submissive, a f–” self-censoring in mid-word, she changed to, “freakin’ letter?”  [inside joke for Dear Sir, I’m Yours fans.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.]

He gripped her chin and tilted her face back up to him.  A smile softened his face, but not his grip.  “I’d much rather have this show than a letter.  I’m pleased, Shiloh, more than I can say.”  Shadowed desire flickered in his eyes despite his encouragement and his fingers dug into her cheeks.  Even in trying to comfort her, he wasn’t—couldn’t be—gentle.  “I am available, I promise you, and so attracted that I don’t trust myself right now.  It’s been a long time since I did a scene, and I never…”

His jaws worked back and forth as though it took all his concentration to soften his grip on her face.  Sighing, he released her and turned away.  “I don’t want to seriously hurt you.”

Incredulous, she stared at him, her mind whirling in a frenzy. 

Victor Connagher, the fiercest, most incredible Master she’d ever hoped to meet in her life…was afraid.