Loving Lily is STILL a bestseller! Win a free ebook copy!

ETA: I’ve picked a winner! Thank you everyone for stopping by and playing my little celebration game. :-D

 

BookStrand Hh bestseller

Yes, Loving Lily is still on BookStrand’s Older H/h eBooks bestseller list, for weeks now at number TWO! In celebration, I’m giving away a free ebook copy of Loving Lily. Answer the question below (leave a comment on this post) after reading the short excerpt, and I will pick a winner at random on Friday!

loving-lily

Question:

What is Matt riding when Lily first sets eyes on him?

a. a Harley

b. an ostrich

c. a mountain bicycle

d. a hot blonde

Excerpt from Chapter One:

Lily stared at the enormous bra the lingerie lady held out to her.

“Really, I don’t think my boobs are that big,” she said, trying to edge away from the outstretched hands. The woman stepped closer.

“Honey, you really should just try it. You told me you couldn’t figure out why your bras were always uncomfortable. This is why.” She held up the lace and elastic as though it were a flag. “You’ve been wearing ones that are too small.” The silver haired woman smiled kindly. “Trust me. You’ll be a lot happier in this bra. It’s really pretty, too!” The lights of the dressing room made the tiny gems sewn into the bra’s center seam sparkle.

Lily reluctantly took the purple satin from the woman. It was pretty, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to try it on. It looked like something made for a hippo. “I’m not making any promises,” she said reluctantly, frowning down at the bra.

“Trust me. You’ll look good in it. You have a nice bosom, why not show it off?”

“Because men already have a tendency to miss my face and talk directly to my chest,” she muttered under her breath. The old woman smiled kindly at her and Lily knew she hadn’t heard.

“It can’t hurt to try it,” the woman urged.

Lily tried not to shudder as the lady closed the fitting room door.

Five minutes later, she scowled at herself in the mirror. “Fuck,” she said, then clapped her hand over her mouth. She’d been trying to cut down on the cursing, but every time something bad happened, the f-word slipped out.

And this qualifies as a mini-disaster, she told herself. The bra fit. It looked fantastic, in fact. It was comfortable and her breasts were contained in a way that proved she actually did have a waist.

“Dammit,” she muttered, turning to look at her back in the mirror. She held her wavy brown hair off her shoulders and glared at her reflection. Even the rear view was lovely: no bulging flesh, no side-boobs. She let her hair fall down and sighed. She could never decide if she hated her body or loved it. She wasn’t skinny by any stretch of the imagination, but she wasn’t huge, either. She had a small waist, but it was usually hidden because she had to buy clothes that fit both her top and her bottom. And because her breasts were rather generous, the standard clothing sizes that worked usually made her look like she had no shape. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how she looked at it, her curvy ass balanced the ridiculous size of her breasts rather well. She looked okay naked, but as soon as she put on a blouse or a sweater, all her confidence went out the window.

If I could live somewhere long enough to find a seamstress who could alter my clothes, I’d probably look great, she thought, not for the first time. She laughed at herself. She knew even if that were true, she wouldn’t bother. She just didn’t care enough to settle down. She hadn’t cared since her husband Jack died three years ago.

****

“For God’s sake Matt, you need to get out of your house sometimes and talk to people. You’re going to rot up on that mountain. We’ll find your body in your foyer someday, desiccated and pathetic.”

Matt sighed loudly. “Stephanie, I’m sitting in a park with you right now. We’re surrounded by people.”

His sister sniffed as she watched her five-year-old twin girls run up the jungle gym steps so they could go down the slide again. “That’s only because I dragged you out today. You’re a hermit. Admit it.”

“I have work to do. I’m just about to finish up the edits on my latest novel. I do have deadlines, you know. And I like being alone,” Mat said absently, smiling as his little niece Keri shrieked on her way down. Her sister, Annie, swooped down right after, landing on top of her. Keri pushed her off with a disgusted look, and then the two were off again. “They never seem to get tired of the slide, do they?”

Stephanie leaned back against the bench, hands twirling the seeded dandelion her daughters had given her just a few minutes ago. “Oh, they will. And then we’ll be pushing them on the swings for about three hours.”

Matt grinned, glad he’d managed to deflect his sister’s nagging. He liked his house. He liked being alone. He liked writing the novels that paid his bills. “I don’t mind. They’re sweet.”

Stephanie gave him a look. “Sweet. Uh-huh.” She smiled grimly and turned to him. “I need a babysitter for Friday night.”

Matt backed away, almost falling off the bench. “Oh no. No way. The last time you roped me into babysitting alone I ended up at the clinic with them.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “How can a Navy SEAL be such a wuss?”

“Ex-Navy SEAL. I haven’t been in the military in ten years,” Matt reminded her.

She mouthed whatever at him and waved her hands belligerently.

He crossed his arms, not about to be taken in by her. How his little sister managed to annoy him so much, he had no idea. She was thirty, thirteen years younger than him, and they hadn’t even really grown up together, but she still drove him mad. “And seriously. I needed stitches, remember? They maimed me,” he said, disgusted just thinking about it.

His sister laughed. “You were the one who let them play outside with those sticks. I hope you learned your lesson. You’re supposed to be the one who rescues people. You’re not supposed to need rescuing. From two tiny little girls.” Stephanie’s whole face was alight with glee.

He coughed, trying to cover up his sudden embarrassment. That episode with the girls wasn’t his finest hour. “Yeah, I learned all right,” he said grimly. “Don’t let little girls pretend they’re pirates using sticks as their swords. I figured that out real quick.” He ran a finger over his right forearm where the scar from that particular lapse of judgment resided.

His sister rolled her eyes at his tone. “Oh please, you were fine. It was just a little blood.”

He stared at her. “I had to take them to the clinic with me.”

She looked back, nonchalant. “So?”

“Twin three year old girls. The clinic’s urgent care room.” He waved an arm toward his nieces, still running around like wild animals on the jungle gym. “Do I really have to explain what it was like trying to corral them there while keeping myself from bleeding to death?”

His sister patted his arm. “You survived. It was good for you.”

He slumped back on the bench. “That was worse than anything I had to do in the Navy. I kid you not.”

“Stop being so melodramatic.” His sister wasn’t even looking at him now as she grinned.

She didn’t care about his tender feelings, not the least little bit. She thought he was being ridiculous, and in a way, he understood. It was funny. On the other hand, he’d been so worried for his nieces that he’d almost lost it and started bawling in the clinic along with them. They really hadn’t liked watching the doctor stitch up their Uncle Matt. The crying had gone on for a long, long time. Abruptly, he stood up. “I’ve gotta get going. I have a deadline to meet.” He loved Stephanie, really he did, but sometimes she made him want to tear out all his hair. And he knew how stupid he looked without hair. He had pictures from boot camp.

“Don’t forget, we’re having dinner at Mom and Dad’s place at the end of the month. Tell Alex. I never see him. I think he’s trying to avoid me.” She smiled at him, standing up to give him a hug.

“I’ll tell him.” He squeezed her hard, picking her up slightly just to hear her oof.

She smacked him on the head. “Stop squeezing me to death. I need air, you know.”

He laughed, squeezing her again before putting her down. “You’re just so tiny. It makes me want to squish you.”

She huffed. “Yeah, well, my kids need their mom upright and walking, not passed out on the grass. And I’m not tiny. You’re a giant.”

He rolled his eyes this time. “Six-two is not that tall.”

“Says the giant.”

He ignored her, calling out to the twins coming down the slide again. “Bye girls!”

“Bye Uncle Matt! Bye!” they yelled back, running over to hug him goodbye.

“Be good for your mom, okay?” he said, running a hand over their sweaty hair.

The older one nodded. “We will.” She grabbed her sister before she could say anything and dragged her back over to the slide.

Matt waved at them and turned to go, but not before he got one last dig into his sister. “I’m not that big, you know. You’re just shrinking. I’ve heard that having kids can do that. Brain cells are the first to go.” He ducked away before she could swat him again, laughing at the look of ire on her face.

****

“Fuck. Double fuckity fuck,” Lily muttered, kicking at her stupid, dumb, loser flat tire. She didn’t even bother trying to keep the cursing down this time. She was in the middle of freaking nowhere with her entire life packed into her stupid SUV. And what happens? I get a flat. Of course.

“If you’d bothered to plug your cell phone in, this wouldn’t be a big deal, now would it?” she berated herself out loud. “But no. You couldn’t remember to do that, could you? Of course not. You’re lost, your cell battery is dead, and your car is going nowhere. Fuck!” She yelled out the last part, kicking the tire again.

She looked up at the trees, judging it to be late afternoon by the angle of the sun. She’d been looking forward to checking into the bed and breakfast she’d booked, and then heading somewhere for dinner. Now she was stuck on the side of a mountain, in the woods, in rural Vermont, with no way to get help.

“Looks like I’m walking. Probably for hours,” she said aloud. “Because I’m too dumb to plan ahead. Soon as I get settled, I’m buying an extra phone battery.”

She locked her car and started off down the road. At least it was summertime. And not raining.

“I shouldn’t have stopped in the mall this morning. I didn’t really need a new bra.” She kicked a rock along the side of the road. It made a satisfying sound so she kicked it again.

“I could have stopped for lunch. There was a sandwich shop right off the interstate.” She’d been thinking about the new bra and the trauma of finally accepting that she’d been stuffing herself into lingerie two sizes too small. When she’d driven past the sandwich place, she decided she wasn’t that hungry. “But you’re hungry now, aren’t you, Lily?” She stopped for a moment to look up at the sky. The blue expanse just beyond the treetops mocked her. “Idiot,” she snorted.

The thing was, she really did need a new bra. She didn’t have many because she hated shopping for them so much, so she tended to wash and rewash until the few she owned were falling apart. She was at the point where all of the bras she owned were falling apart.

“Fuck. This stupid bra really is comfortable,” she said aloud, kicking the rock again.

“Hello there! I saw a car with a flat back there. Is it yours?” a male voice called out.

Lily jumped, heart knocking against her ribs. She spun around, surprised to see a man standing over a mountain bike just behind her. What the hell? Where did he come from? And also, oh shit, did he just hear me talking about my bra? Out loud?

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, unbuckling his helmet.

Lily stared, still too freaked out to speak. He was huge. Like, really, really tall. And built. Her eyes wandered over his green t-shirt, down his cargo shorts to his feet. He was wearing some sort of hard boots with metal clip things on the bottom. Given all the crap that had happened in her life, she should probably be frightened about being caught alone in the middle of rural USA with a strange man, but she just couldn’t work up the energy for it right now. Plus, he had kind eyes.

And he’s extremely good-looking, she thought to herself, a little bit star-struck. He was movie-star hot, especially with the hint of silver at his temples. The crows-feet at the corner of his eyes made him seem real. Approachable. He looked like a man who’d been through a lot and come out the other side even better. He smiled appealingly. Lily stared some more. His teeth were perfectly white.

“Are you okay?” he asked, making no move to come closer. It was as if he knew how intimidating he could look if he tried. He stood there casually, one hand cradling his helmet, the other held palm out near his hip. It was a distinctly unthreatening gesture.

Lily took in his bright hazel eyes, his messy dark hair, the width of his shoulders, and swallowed, hard. If he knew I was speechless because he’s insanely gorgeous, not because I’m afraid, he’d probably turn tail and run to get away from the crazy woman, she thought. “Um, yeah. That’s my car,” she finally managed to say aloud. She grimaced. “And my flat tire.”

He cocked his head.

He looks adorable when he does that, she thought absently, eyes wandering back over him again.

“Do you have someone you can call?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. Even if my cell phone wasn’t dead, I’d just be calling the nearest tow company. I’m not from around here.”

“I figured that,” he said, smiling. “The nearest tow place would be my brother, Alex. He owns the town’s only mechanic shop.”

Lily grinned, holding out her hand. “That’s good to know. I’m Lily Solton, by the way. Do you, by any chance, have a working cell phone?”

He walked closer, wheeling the bicycle with him. It was mud-spattered, but bright green paint shone through the dirt. When his hand closed over hers, she gasped at how gently he held it. His hand was warm and dry and strong—she could see the muscles in his forearm flexing, but he didn’t use it to hurt her like some men would. Instead, he shook her hand and let go politely.

“I do,” he said, then blinked. “Have a phone, that is.”

Lily laughed out loud. “If I said ‘I do’ too, does that mean I get to buy you dinner? I mean, if we’re going to get married, the least I can do is ask you out on a date, right?”

To her astonishment, he blushed.

Whoa, she thought, inordinately charmed. He’s hot and nice and he blushes, oh my.

“Um, yeah.” He stumbled over his words. “I mean, no. Wait, that didn’t come out right.” He stopped and took a breath and tried again while Lily grinned at him. “I would enjoy having dinner with you, but marriage on the day we meet is a bit too hasty for me.” His hazel eyes twinkled down at her. “It’s not you, it’s me,” he added, chuckling.

Lily laughed, stepping back. “I get that, sure.”

He reached into his pocket and extracted a phone. “Want me to call my brother?”

“If he’s the guy with the tow truck, yes, please.”

He nodded and Lily watched him punch a button.

“Hey,” he said, phone to his ear, lips quirking up on one side. “I’ve got a lady with a flat out on Rock Creek Road.” He nodded. “Yeah. Sure, we can wait.” He slid the phone back in his pocket, shaking his head. “Not like you can go anywhere, not with that flat.” He jerked his thumb back down the road.

“How long?” Lily asked him, trying not to stare at the way his shirt stretched over the luscious perfection of his pectoral muscles.

“He says fifteen minutes. I’ll walk you back to your car.” He hooked his helmet on his handlebar and turned the bicycle around.

“You don’t have to do that,” she protested. “I don’t want to hold you up. Looks like you were in the middle of a ride.”

He shrugged. “I ride almost every day. It’s no big deal.” He began walking. “You coming?”

Lily hitched her purse higher on her shoulder. “Yeah. I’m coming.”

lovinglilybanner

editors

Description:

Lily desperately wants to start over after her family dies in a series of suspicious accidents, but just as she’s moving on, her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, a handsome hero comes to her rescue.

Matt is everything Lily didn’t know a man could be: strong, kind, and willing to stick around, even when they discover someone is trying to kill her, too. Lily isn’t sure she’s worth his protection: she’s forty years old and too outspoken to be sweet, but Matt can’t help loving the curvy woman with the fabulous sense of humor. Lily can’t help falling for the sexy ex-SEAL who seems to like her just as she is.

When a storm and a dangerous vendetta threaten Lily’s life, will Matt’s strength and Lily’s resilience be enough to stand between love and disaster?

________________

Where to Buy: 

________________

The beginning of Loving Lily – meet Matt!

Two more days until you can meet Matt and Lily! Er, rather, two and a half more days… Here’s a teaser for you, from the novella’s opening chapter:

loving-lily

editors

Release date this Thursday: June 20 2013!

Description:

Lily desperately wants to start over after her family dies in a series of suspicious accidents, but just as she’s moving on, her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, a handsome hero comes to her rescue.

Matt is everything Lily didn’t know a man could be: strong, kind, and willing to stick around, even when they discover someone is trying to kill her, too. Lily isn’t sure she’s worth his protection: she’s forty years old and too outspoken to be sweet, but Matt can’t help loving the curvy woman with the fabulous sense of humor. Lily can’t help falling for the sexy ex-SEAL who seems to like her just as she is.

When a storm and a dangerous vendetta threaten Lily’s life, will Matt’s strength and Lily’s resilience be enough to stand between love and disaster?

________________

The Beginning:

Lily stared at the enormous bra the lingerie lady held out to her.

“Really, I don’t think my boobs are that big,” she said, trying to edge away from the outstretched hands. The woman stepped closer.

“Honey, you really should just try it. You told me you couldn’t figure out why your bras were always uncomfortable. This is why.” She held up the lace and elastic as though it were a flag. “You’ve been wearing ones that are too small.” The silver haired woman smiled kindly. “Trust me. You’ll be a lot happier in this bra. It’s really pretty, too!” The lights of the dressing room made the tiny gems sewn into the bra’s center seam sparkle.

Lily reluctantly took the purple satin from the woman. It was pretty, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to try it on. It looked like something made for a hippo. “I’m not making any promises,” she said reluctantly, frowning down at the bra.

“Trust me. You’ll look good in it. You have a nice bosom, why not show it off?”

“Because men already have a tendency to miss my face and talk directly to my chest,” she muttered under her breath. The old woman smiled kindly at her and Lily knew she hadn’t heard.

“It can’t hurt to try it,” the woman urged.

Lily tried not to shudder as the lady closed the fitting room door.

Five minutes later, she scowled at herself in the mirror. “Fuck,” she said, then clapped her hand over her mouth. She’d been trying to cut down on the cursing, but every time something bad happened, the f-word slipped out.

And this qualifies as a mini-disaster, she told herself. The bra fit. It looked fantastic, in fact. It was comfortable and her breasts were contained in a way that proved she actually did have a waist.

“Dammit,” she muttered, turning to look at her back in the mirror. She held her wavy brown hair off her shoulders and glared at her reflection. Even the rear view was lovely: no bulging flesh, no side-boobs. She let her hair fall down and sighed. She could never decide if she hated her body or loved it. She wasn’t skinny by any stretch of the imagination, but she wasn’t huge, either. She had a small waist, but it was usually hidden because she had to buy clothes that fit both her top and her bottom. And because her breasts were rather generous, the standard clothing sizes that worked usually made her look like she had no shape. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how she looked at it, her curvy ass balanced the ridiculous size of her breasts rather well. She looked okay naked, but as soon as she put on a blouse or a sweater, all her confidence went out the window.

If I could live somewhere long enough to find a seamstress who could alter my clothes, I’d probably look great, she thought, not for the first time. She laughed at herself. She knew even if that were true, she wouldn’t bother. She just didn’t care enough to settle down. She hadn’t cared since her husband Jack died three years ago.

****

“For God’s sake Matt, you need to get out of your house sometimes and talk to people. You’re going to rot up on that mountain. We’ll find your body in your foyer someday, desiccated and pathetic.”

Matt sighed loudly. “Stephanie, I’m sitting in a park with you right now. We’re surrounded by people.”

His sister sniffed as she watched her five-year-old twin girls run up the jungle gym steps so they could go down the slide again. “That’s only because I dragged you out today. You’re a hermit. Admit it.”

“I have work to do. I’m just about to finish up the edits on my latest novel. I do have deadlines, you know. And I like being alone,” Mat said absently, smiling as his little niece Keri shrieked on her way down. Her sister, Annie, swooped down right after, landing on top of her. Keri pushed her off with a disgusted look, and then the two were off again. “They never seem to get tired of the slide, do they?”

Stephanie leaned back against the bench, hands twirling the seeded dandelion her daughters had given her just a few minutes ago. “Oh, they will. And then we’ll be pushing them on the swings for about three hours.”

Matt grinned, glad he’d managed to deflect his sister’s nagging. He liked his house. He liked being alone. He liked writing the novels that paid his bills. “I don’t mind. They’re sweet.”

Stephanie gave him a look. “Sweet. Uh-huh.” She smiled grimly and turned to him. “I need a babysitter for Friday night.”

Matt backed away, almost falling off the bench. “Oh no. No way. The last time you roped me into babysitting alone I ended up at the clinic with them.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “How can a Navy SEAL be such a wuss?”

“Ex-Navy SEAL. I haven’t been in the military in ten years,” Matt reminded her.

She mouthed whatever at him and waved her hands belligerently.

He crossed his arms, not about to be taken in by her. How his little sister managed to annoy him so much, he had no idea. She was thirty, thirteen years younger than him, and they hadn’t even really grown up together, but she still drove him mad. “And seriously. I needed stitches, remember? They maimed me,” he said, disgusted just thinking about it.

His sister laughed. “You were the one who let them play outside with those sticks. I hope you learned your lesson. You’re supposed to be the one who rescues people. You’re not supposed to need rescuing. From two tiny little girls.” Stephanie’s whole face was alight with glee.

He coughed, trying to cover up his sudden embarrassment. That episode with the girls wasn’t his finest hour. “Yeah, I learned all right,” he said grimly. “Don’t let little girls pretend they’re pirates using sticks as their swords. I figured that out real quick.” He ran a finger over his right forearm where the scar from that particular lapse of judgment resided.

His sister rolled her eyes at his tone. “Oh please, you were fine. It was just a little blood.”

He stared at her. “I had to take them to the clinic with me.”

She looked back, nonchalant. “So?”

“Twin three year old girls. The clinic’s urgent care room.” He waved an arm toward his nieces, still running around like wild animals on the jungle gym. “Do I really have to explain what it was like trying to corral them there while keeping myself from bleeding to death?”

His sister patted his arm. “You survived. It was good for you.”

He slumped back on the bench. “That was worse than anything I had to do in the Navy. I kid you not.”

“Stop being so melodramatic.” His sister wasn’t even looking at him now as she grinned.

She didn’t care about his tender feelings, not the least little bit. She thought he was being ridiculous, and in a way, he understood. It was funny. On the other hand, he’d been so worried for his nieces that he’d almost lost it and started bawling in the clinic along with them. They really hadn’t liked watching the doctor stitch up their Uncle Matt. The crying had gone on for a long, long time. Abruptly, he stood up. “I’ve gotta get going. I have a deadline to meet.” He loved Stephanie, really he did, but sometimes she made him want to tear out all his hair. And he knew how stupid he looked without hair. He had pictures from boot camp.

“Don’t forget, we’re having dinner at Mom and Dad’s place at the end of the month. Tell Alex. I never see him. I think he’s trying to avoid me.” She smiled at him, standing up to give him a hug.

“I’ll tell him.” He squeezed her hard, picking her up slightly just to hear her oof.

She smacked him on the head. “Stop squeezing me to death. I need air, you know.”

He laughed, squeezing her again before putting her down. “You’re just so tiny. It makes me want to squish you.”

She huffed. “Yeah, well, my kids need their mom upright and walking, not passed out on the grass. And I’m not tiny. You’re a giant.”

He rolled his eyes this time. “Six-two is not that tall.”

“Says the giant.”

He ignored her, calling out to the twins coming down the slide again. “Bye girls!”

“Bye Uncle Matt! Bye!” they yelled back, running over to hug him goodbye.

“Be good for your mom, okay?” he said, running a hand over their sweaty hair.

The older one nodded. “We will.” She grabbed her sister before she could say anything and dragged her back over to the slide.

Matt waved at them and turned to go, but not before he got one last dig into his sister. “I’m not that big, you know. You’re just shrinking. I’ve heard that having kids can do that. Brain cells are the first to go.” He ducked away before she could swat him again, laughing at the look of ire on her face.

****

“Fuck. Double fuckity fuck,” Lily muttered, kicking at her stupid, dumb, loser flat tire. She didn’t even bother trying to keep the cursing down this time. She was in the middle of freaking nowhere with her entire life packed into her stupid SUV. And what happens? I get a flat. Of course.

“If you’d bothered to plug your cell phone in, this wouldn’t be a big deal, now would it?” she berated herself out loud. “But no. You couldn’t remember to do that, could you? Of course not. You’re lost, your cell battery is dead, and your car is going nowhere. Fuck!” She yelled out the last part, kicking the tire again.

She looked up at the trees, judging it to be late afternoon by the angle of the sun. She’d been looking forward to checking into the bed and breakfast she’d booked, and then heading somewhere for dinner. Now she was stuck on the side of a mountain, in the woods, in rural Vermont, with no way to get help.

“Looks like I’m walking. Probably for hours,” she said aloud. “Because I’m too dumb to plan ahead. Soon as I get settled, I’m buying an extra phone battery.”

She locked her car and started off down the road. At least it was summertime. And not raining.

“I shouldn’t have stopped in the mall this morning. I didn’t really need a new bra.” She kicked a rock along the side of the road. It made a satisfying sound so she kicked it again.

“I could have stopped for lunch. There was a sandwich shop right off the interstate.” She’d been thinking about the new bra and the trauma of finally accepting that she’d been stuffing herself into lingerie two sizes too small. When she’d driven past the sandwich place, she decided she wasn’t that hungry. “But you’re hungry now, aren’t you, Lily?” She stopped for a moment to look up at the sky. The blue expanse just beyond the treetops mocked her. “Idiot,” she snorted.

The thing was, she really did need a new bra. She didn’t have many because she hated shopping for them so much, so she tended to wash and rewash until the few she owned were falling apart. She was at the point where all of the bras she owned were falling apart.

“Fuck. This stupid bra really is comfortable,” she said aloud, kicking the rock again.

“Hello there! I saw a car with a flat back there. Is it yours?” a male voice called out.

Lily jumped, heart knocking against her ribs. She spun around, surprised to see a man standing over a mountain bike just behind her. What the hell? Where did he come from? And also, oh shit, did he just hear me talking about my bra? Out loud?

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, unbuckling his helmet.

Lily stared, still too freaked out to speak. He was huge. Like, really, really tall. And built. Her eyes wandered over his green t-shirt, down his cargo shorts to his feet. He was wearing some sort of hard boots with metal clip things on the bottom. Given all the crap that had happened in her life, she should probably be frightened about being caught alone in the middle of rural USA with a strange man, but she just couldn’t work up the energy for it right now. Plus, he had kind eyes.

And he’s extremely good-looking, she thought to herself, a little bit star-struck. He was movie-star hot, especially with the hint of silver at his temples. The crows-feet at the corner of his eyes made him seem real. Approachable. He looked like a man who’d been through a lot and come out the other side even better. He smiled appealingly. Lily stared some more. His teeth were perfectly white.

“Are you okay?” he asked, making no move to come closer. It was as if he knew how intimidating he could look if he tried. He stood there casually, one hand cradling his helmet, the other held palm out near his hip. It was a distinctly unthreatening gesture.

Lily took in his bright hazel eyes, his messy dark hair, the width of his shoulders, and swallowed, hard. If he knew I was speechless because he’s insanely gorgeous, not because I’m afraid, he’d probably turn tail and run to get away from the crazy woman, she thought. “Um, yeah. That’s my car,” she finally managed to say aloud. She grimaced. “And my flat tire.”

He cocked his head.

He looks adorable when he does that, she thought absently, eyes wandering back over him again.

“Do you have someone you can call?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. Even if my cell phone wasn’t dead, I’d just be calling the nearest tow company. I’m not from around here.”

“I figured that,” he said, smiling. “The nearest tow place would be my brother, Alex. He owns the town’s only mechanic shop.”

Lily grinned, holding out her hand. “That’s good to know. I’m Lily Solton, by the way. Do you, by any chance, have a working cell phone?”

He walked closer, wheeling the bicycle with him. It was mud-spattered, but bright green paint shone through the dirt. When his hand closed over hers, she gasped at how gently he held it. His hand was warm and dry and strong—she could see the muscles in his forearm flexing, but he didn’t use it to hurt her like some men would. Instead, he shook her hand and let go politely.

“I do,” he said, then blinked. “Have a phone, that is.”

Lily laughed out loud. “If I said ‘I do’ too, does that mean I get to buy you dinner? I mean, if we’re going to get married, the least I can do is ask you out on a date, right?”

To her astonishment, he blushed.

Whoa, she thought, inordinately charmed. He’s hot and nice and he blushes, oh my.

“Um, yeah.” He stumbled over his words. “I mean, no. Wait, that didn’t come out right.” He stopped and took a breath and tried again while Lily grinned at him. “I would enjoy having dinner with you, but marriage on the day we meet is a bit too hasty for me.” His hazel eyes twinkled down at her. “It’s not you, it’s me,” he added, chuckling.

Lily laughed, stepping back. “I get that, sure.”

He reached into his pocket and extracted a phone. “Want me to call my brother?”

“If he’s the guy with the tow truck, yes, please.”

He nodded and Lily watched him punch a button.

“Hey,” he said, phone to his ear, lips quirking up on one side. “I’ve got a lady with a flat out on Rock Creek Road.” He nodded. “Yeah. Sure, we can wait.” He slid the phone back in his pocket, shaking his head. “Not like you can go anywhere, not with that flat.” He jerked his thumb back down the road.

“How long?” Lily asked him, trying not to stare at the way his shirt stretched over the luscious perfection of his pectoral muscles.

“He says fifteen minutes. I’ll walk you back to your car.” He hooked his helmet on his handlebar and turned the bicycle around.

“You don’t have to do that,” she protested. “I don’t want to hold you up. Looks like you were in the middle of a ride.”

He shrugged. “I ride almost every day. It’s no big deal.” He began walking. “You coming?”

Lily hitched her purse higher on her shoulder. “Yeah. I’m coming.”

Chapter One of Devotion — Ximena and Zefirino

Devotion

I don’t know about you, but I like to know what I’m getting into before I read a book. I love ebook samples because they give me an idea of the author’s writing style. I’m posting the first chapter of Devotion so everyone can meet Queen Ximena and her devoted bodyguard, Zefirino.

editors

Click on the cover to buy from Evernight Publishing. Click here to read an excerpt.

Description:

Queen Ximena is devoted to her people and will gladly sacrifice herself for them, even if it means her death. Her bodyguard, Zefirino, is devoted to her and will gladly sacrifice himself to keep her alive.

When a terrible enemy suddenly attacks their planet, how will they protect those they love without losing each other? Together they survive an assassination attempt, invasion, and capture, but they both know that their duty may eventually tear them apart.

How can Ximena give her life for her people when she knows that Zefirino will die trying to save her? Who does she put first: her planet, or the lover she isn’t even supposed to have?

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Chapter One:

Ximena ran her fingers along the white marble walls as they walked. The cold surface soothed her nerves and helped her orient her thoughts properly. Too much confusion in her mind led to bad things, not that she’d ever let it get to that. Her authority was a heavy responsibility, but she’d been raised to shoulder it since birth.

The tunnel they moved down was brightly lit, almost enough to hurt her eyes, but not quite. The marble that sheathed everything might have looked sterile except for the few black doors that dotted the long passage. They were the secret entrances to every room in the Palace, used by only a few servants and security personnel. It was a major breach of protocol for her to be here.

“Why are you doing this, Xi?” Zefirino asked.

She shrugged tiredly, unsurprised by his question. She’d been waiting for it. “It is my responsibility.”

He put a hand in front of them, stopping her. The mark of his rank, Aegis Strike Leader, was tattooed on the palm of his right hand. She eyed the circle with the two strikes bisecting it and stifled a sigh. He let his hand drop. “No, it is not. It is too dangerous. I could question her for you. I should question her for you.”

She frowned at him. His handsome face was troubled. She wished she could reach out and smooth the worry lines away, but such familiarity would shock him, desperate as she was to feel his skin, accept that he was a living, breathing man who stood beside her always. She sighed out loud, instead. “We tried it your way and she would not speak. I need to do this.”

He looked at her steadily, the olive green of his eyes never wavering. Not for the first time she found herself admiring the cool green of his stare. He was a handsome man, not that she allowed herself to think of him that way very often. She looked down, wondering how he could stand there like that, so still. He never fidgeted. His tight black uniform hugged his body, highlighting the muscles hard-won through years of training. Weapons were strapped to his arms and legs, small black lumps against the synthetic fabric of his clothing.

“You know I am right,” she said finally, meeting his eyes again. She ignored the curious looks of the others in the passageway. They knew better than to question her presence here. She was their ruler, their queen. Zefirino was her personal bodyguard and head of the royal security force, as his father had been before him. Of all the people in the Palace, they had the right to go anywhere and do anything they wished. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the tension that coiled in her spine like a snake. The right to go anywhere meant that she went fewer places than most.

Zef licked his lower lip thoughtfully. She hid a smile, turning away from him. He would hate to be reminded of the one childhood habit he could not train away.

“Fine. But I will be there with you at all times.”

“I would expect nothing less,” she said, looking down the gleaming marble at the black door set in the curve of the tunnel. “It is time.”

He said nothing as she walked to the door and paused in front of it. After a moment’s hesitation, she put her eye to the security panel set at shoulder height. The electronics in the door identified her retinal pattern. With a flick of her eyelid, she keyed on the hidden camera so that she could look out into the courtyard. Sitting on the stone bench near the waterfall was the woman they’d come to see. Her long, brown hair was expertly arranged to fall over her left shoulder. Her lips were painted a deep red. Ximena controlled the urge to run her hand down her own hair. It’d taken an hour to wrestle her curly red mane into submission this morning.

“Well?” Zef asked.

“So pushy,” she murmured. Her companion flashed her a rare grin. Ximena rolled her eyes at him then squared her shoulders and pushed open the door.

The courtyard was shockingly humid after the cool, controlled environment of the Palace. Zefirino settled into position near the door, trying to blend into the wall and look menacing at the same time. Ximena allowed herself a quick smile. There was no way Zef could ever blend in, he was simply too tall. Too commanding. The door closed silently behind her as she walked forward, but the woman didn’t look up.

“I’ve been waiting almost an hour.” She examined her fingernails, still not bothering to acknowledge Xi’s presence.

Ximena halted several feet away, considering her words carefully. The woman did not bow or indicate in any way that she was in the presence of her queen. Strange. It would not do to appear defensive. She spent too much time in committee meetings to be entirely happy with the way the woman was acting. She had to deal with squabbling councilors nearly every day and wasn’t pleased to be here handling yet another difficult person when she would have preferred to be resting. All too soon she would have to attend dinner where yet more opportunities for lobbying would need managing. Compromise was a hallmark of her reign and the unification of all the outlying provinces the result, but that kind of policy took a great deal of patience. She stifled a sigh. Self-pity is not a queenly trait, she told herself.

“I hope you enjoyed the fountain. If one must wait, it is better to do so in the presence of beauty,” Ximena finally said, walking forward and gesturing at the water. It arced in an interwoven pattern of half-circles, changing at half-minute intervals. The scent of moisture hitting sun-baked concrete tickled her nose.

The woman swiveled around on the bench and set her feet on the ground. She wore a long, red robe, belted with a brown leather utility belt at her waist. Ximena took in the empty weapon slots with equanimity. Zef’s people would have searched the woman before letting her this far onto the Palace grounds.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the woman stated, eyeing Ximena’s simple white formal robe with a slightly raised brow.

Ximena’s cocked her head. “Are we to trade aphorisms all day or will you offer your name?”

The woman cocked her head. Her dark brown eyes glittered with some emotion Ximena didn’t recognize. “I am Cleo.”

Ximena clasped her hands together. “Cleo. What brings you to Palace City?”

Cleo pursed her lips, eyes darting to Zef and back again. She pivoted on the bench and looked out over the stone wall separating the Palace courtyard from the public grounds. Children shrieked as they ran into and out of the water.

“Look at them, so young. Their minds have nothing in them except the urge for play or sleep or food.” Cleo looked back over her shoulder at Ximena and smiled, but only half her mouth tilted up. “Don’t you think so?”

She looks more bitter than happy, Ximena thought, forcing her impatience down. Behind her she sensed Zef’s wariness as if it were a physical thing. He shifted his stance, relaxing and tensing his muscles in a precise sequence so that none would grow fatigued.

“They look also for love,” Ximena offered finally. She let her hands fall to her sides. No sense in holding the traditional greeting posture when the woman didn’t acknowledge it by voice or body movement.

“Love?” Cleo laughed. “Is that how you see children?”

Ximena didn’t allow even the tiniest bit of discomfort to mar her face. She didn’t know why the woman had demanded to see her or who she had bribed to get this far, but her very presence here in this courtyard said much about her ability to maneuver the slick, political dangers of Arcadia. “Children are a blessing.”

The woman stared at her with her perfect hair, perfect skin and lips, and Xi tried to appear calm and expectant, though she felt anything but. Suddenly the woman whipped her hand up, an antique pistol nestled like a viper within her fingers. Xi stepped back as the metal flashed in the sunlight—shocking and unexpected on this cloudless day. As if in slow motion, Ximena saw her squeeze the trigger but she was already diving behind the second stone bench, Zefirino too far away to protect her. She concentrated briefly, infusing her hands with energy, then picked up the bench and shoved it over as the sharp, percussive pop-pop-pop of the bullets hit the door, the wall, and the edge of the stone paving.

“Ximena!” Zef cried and Xi knew he was trying to get to her but he would be too late. She must save herself. Deep in her mind she relaxed her rigid control and let her training take over. Bullets from the pistol continued to fly around her and she spared an anguished thought for Zefirino, her companion since they were children, but she needed to focus when she used Vim. The ordinary citizens called it magic, and thought it an easy gift, but she knew better the price she paid for her strength. Magic was a child’s tale.  Vim was real and exacted some very difficult costs depending on what she did with it. To save her life and Zef’s, she would gladly pay.

She infused more energy into her muscles as quickly as she dared then picked up the bench a large man would have trouble pushing even a pebble’s length and ran with it towards the woman. The rough stone, designed to look rustic, warmed her palms. The water from the fountain looked like it was floating, as if gravity had disappeared, but Ximena couldn’t spare the time to consider the changes in her mind when she used Vim as she always had before. This was no meditation exercise. Several bullets hit the stone, it vibrated minutely, and then she was on top of Cleo, shoving the stone down onto her. She thought the woman would die instantly with two tons of weight on top of her body, but instead she struggled, pushing up against the bench with inhuman strength. Ximena shoved down and heard the woman’s bones crack. Horrible. She pushed harder, trying to finish it, but Cleo shoved one last time. The bench shifted up and off her body for a moment, then crashed down. She didn’t move after that.

How did she do that? No one is that strong, Ximena thought, shocked, then her thoughts fractured and reality zoomed into her body and mind like a glider hitting a wall. She gasped and stepped out of the way of the bench sliding down and off the woman’s body. It tumbled to the ground with a hollow boom. Fragments of the broken stone caught in Ximena’s robe.

“Xi! Are you hurt?” Zefirino was finally there. He had his hands on her arms and Ximena thought she might pass out from the shock of his warm palms on her skin for the first time in decades. His terror for her had clearly overthrown years of training.

“I am fine, Zef. I am unhurt, see?” She gestured as best she could with his fingers still wrapped around her forearms. He looked down, a dull flush rising over his olive skin. He dropped her arms and stepped back.

“My apologies, my queen.”

Ximena suddenly felt like sobbing. One touch, just one and I am undone. “No.” She waved a hand. It trembled and she hugged it to her waist. “No apologies are necessary, Zefirino.” She explained away their lapse with a shake of her head.

“The security recordings—”

“Will show you rushing to my defense,” Ximena stated. She turned and looked at the red ruin of the woman. I did that, she thought very quietly to herself. A part of her mourned the necessity, but as always, her sense of duty took precedence.“The children?” The silence of the courtyard felt oppressive. Even the water seemed to fall more softly.

“Evacuated at the first shot,” Zef said. He looked away. “I saw to them first.”

Ximena knew he regretted his actions.

“Zef.” Cautiously she put a hand on his arm. Startled, he whipped his head around. His green eyes held tears. “Zefirino, you did what I would have ordered. It is the most sacred rule of our society that children are to be protected.”

He swallowed. “But you are my queen. My duty is to you first, always.”

“No! In this I am nothing more than an ordinary woman. A woman grown and quite capable of looking after myself. You did what was right. You did right, choosing the correct path above all else, just as you always have and will.”

He searched her face and Ximena hoped he saw her unshaken belief in his fidelity. He must have, for he gave a short nod and stepped back. “I do not understand how she could have hidden the pistol.”

Ximena took a deep breath and edged toward the body. “I do not either. We have both been over the protocols a dozen times, as have your men.”

Zef crouched down, poking at the woman’s skull with his telescoping stick weapon. “Xi. Something is odd here.”

She grimaced, but obediently moved closer. She could hear the sounds of Zef’s security detail moving up through the public courtyard. They had only moments before chaos would be upon them. “What is it?”

He glanced at her then plucked a fiber from the mess of red on the stone. “This woman is not human.” He frowned. “Or not entirely human”

Ximena leaned closer, staring at the piece of fiber in his hand. “Zef, surely not.”

“I know, it sounds crazy.” He poked some more, plunging fingers into what used to be a living brain.

Ximena leaned closer, ignoring the stench of sun-heated blood congealing around them. What she saw beneath Zef’s fingers made her heart seize in her chest. “Is that—?”

“Yes.” Zefirino showed her the silicon circuit he’d teased from the mass of brain tissue. “She is a synthetic life form. An android. A myth made real.”

Ximena stared at his hand. His fingers, so familiar to her, held the nightmare her great-grandmother had foreseen in a Vim dream two centuries ago. She closed his fingers over the chip, not caring that the blood coated hers as well. “This must remain our secret.”

Zef nodded, his expression both disturbed and resolute. Their eyes met and she saw the knowledge of what had just occurred in his expression. He was the only other living person who knew what her grandmother had dreamed, all those years ago. He knew because they’d been raised together as companions, as playmates, as friends, even though she was royal and he was not.

“You have my honor in your hands, as always, my queen.” Zef wiped the chip against his black uniform then bowed his head over their fingers. He handed it to her under cover of her robe and she slid it into her hidden pocket before the others found them with it.

© 2012 Marie E. Blossom

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Where to Buy: 

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Chapter One of Seducing Liselle — meet John

seducing-liselle

I don’t know about you, but I like to know what I’m getting into before I read a book. I love ebook samples because they give me an idea of the author’s writing style. I’m posting the first chapter of Seducing Liselle below so everyone can meet John—the hero who saves Liselle from the cold.

Description:

Liselle isn’t looking for a hero, especially not at the ripe old age of forty-three, but when John saves her from a blizzard, she can’t help falling just a little bit in love. He’s sexy, strong, and ex-military, with a sassy niece and four older sisters who clearly adore him.

Even so, looks alone aren’t enough to convince her that he can be trusted. After all, her brother and father tormented her for years—she knows better than to think a man can make her happy.

When John comes to her rescue, will she let old habits rule? Or will she let him heat her up and melt the fear in her heart?

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Chapter One:

John parked the truck, frowning as the rattle of the engine told him that something was going to cost him a lot of money, probably very soon. He hoped the noise it wasn’t the transmission, he’d replaced that five years ago, but you never knew with a truck this old. It used to belong to his Grandpa and he refused to give up on it. He couldn’t toss it away like so much scrap metal.

He got out and slammed the door shut, leaning against the cold metal as he tried to talk himself into going inside. His old wound throbbed and he looked at the sky. It was definitely going to snow tonight. He stretched, wincing as the scar on his shoulder gave a deep thrum of protest. He ignored it, like he always did, but what he couldn’t ignore was the sound of angry female voices piercing the frigid January air. He wasn’t sure what kind of trouble his niece had gotten into this time, but his four older sisters seemed pretty bent out of shape over it. He stared at the house, wondering when the hell this had become his life. Facing down a bunch of tribal leaders in Afghanistan hadn’t been this stressful, but then, a roomful of pissed-off females was more dangerous by far, particularly when you were related to them. He sighed as the door opened and a woman stepped outside. Time to man up and pretend he wasn’t scared of a group of women half his size.

“John! What are you doing, standing out there in the cold? Get your butt in here and tell Jean she’s being an idiot,” his sister Julie called from the porch. She was the closest to him in age, forty-three to his forty-one. He sighed again, this time loud enough for her to hear. When she glared at him, he bit back a grin. She was cute when she was irritated with him.

“What did your daughter do this time?” he asked.

Julie huffed. “Your niece got a tattoo. And I don’t know why Jean cares.”

John laughed. “Um, because she’s Jean?” He crunched across the leftover snow and bounded up the porch steps.

“She didn’t go batshit when you got your nipples pierced,” Julie said, indignantly. “I even showed her pictures!”

“I was overseas, where she couldn’t yell at me. And besides, I took them out again.” John scooped her up, amazed once again at how small his sister was compared to his six feet. Was she even over five feet tall? “Are you shrinking?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, no. I am not shrinking. I’m barefoot and you’re enormous.” She swatted at his head.

“It’s freezing out here and you don’t have any shoes on? You’re going to get frostbite.” John picked her up and clomped to the front door. “Get the screen, would you?”

“Put me down, you Neanderthal!” She yanked on his ear.

“Ow! Stop that.” He juggled his sister and the screen door, trying not to drop her.

“Put me down.” Her fingers headed for the ticklish spot behind his left arm.

“Shit, Julie, you fight dirty,” he groused, dropping her abruptly, but not before he managed to get in a tickle himself. She shrieked and he guffawed, foot jammed into the screen door, his sister digging her sharp fingers into his waist. “Cut it out, woman!” He grabbed her hands and leaned down to give her cheek a raspberry when the inner door abruptly opened. They both froze as a burst of warm air wafted over them. John sniffed. Mmm, pot roast.

“Are you two quite finished out here?” Janet asked. Of the five of them, she was the oldest, forty-nine years old and correspondingly mother-ish.

“Hi Janet,” he said feebly.

She rolled her eyes at him and hugged him. “Where have you been hiding? It’s been a whole week since I’ve seen you.”

He hugged her back, closing his eyes and letting himself just feel. Janet always managed to calm him down, even when he was at his most agitated. He credited her with helping him adjust to being back in the States when he’d gotten his medical discharge. “I was working, you know that.”

She squeezed him harder and let go. “You couldn’t spare one night to come to dinner?” She pulled him inside and jerked her head at her youngest sister. Julie meekly slunk inside, looking like she was sixteen instead of in her forties.

“I had to finish up the detail work on that house out near Hershey,” he protested. “Do you know how long it takes to do crown molding?”

She shook her head and shut the door, locking it against the cold. The foyer behind her was brightly lit and he let his eyes rove over the house he grew up in: wooden steps with the old bannister that he’d refinished last year, the pile of coats on the rack near the door. He smiled wryly, wondering how the hell his sisters and niece Beth managed to live together without killing each other. He’d go mad if he had to sleep in this house.

“Tell me again why you all live here? And where is everybody? I could’ve sworn I heard you fighting,” he said, just to be irritating.

Janet smacked him on the arm. “We live here because it’s easier to take care of one monster-sized house than four small ones, idiot. And I made them go to the kitchen before the roast burned. Arguing in the foyer is just stupid. And I didn’t hear you complaining about having to live here when you came home two years ago.”

He grimaced good-naturedly, remembering how comforting it had been to sleep in his childhood room when he’d been recovering from the injury that had led to his discharge. He couldn’t argue with that.

“Bionic Uncle John!” Beth came running into the foyer and threw herself into his arms. “Wanna see my tattoo?”

He hugged the sixteen-year old close, grinning at her nickname. She thought his shoulder implant was cool. He loved that she took what he regarded as a horrible, career-ending injury, and made him feel … well, not good about it, but maybe okay. He looked at the small design etched into her skin. “It’s very pretty,” he said, wondering what the hell it was supposed to be. It looked like words, kind of? Or maybe the tattoo artist slipped and this was the result. No wonder Jean was so torqued up about it.

“Oh please, you don’t even know what it is,” Beth complained. She pulled her arm back.

“Okay,” he said, trying to buy time. “What is it?” he asked sheepishly. He squinted. It didn’t help. “I like the color?” he tried, but she just rolled her eyes.

“It’s a Fus Ro Dah tattoo,” she said.

“Fus Ro Dah?” What the hell was that?

She rolled her eyes again and he wondered how she managed to avoid getting a headache when she did that. She rolled her eyes a lot.

“It’s a Skyrim meme. It’s a shout meaning ‘force’ and you can use it to kill dragons. Also, the vids on the internet are hilarious.”

“You got a video game meme inked on your body?” He blinked. “No wonder Jean is freaking out,” he muttered.

She huffed and dragged him down the hall. “She’s not freaking out over this, jeez.”

He followed his niece, hoping he’d managed to stomp off most of the snow on his boots. If he left puddles on the hardwood Jenn would kill him.

“That’s not what your mother told me,” he said, poking Beth in the head.

She batted at his hand. “Well, she’s clueless, like usual. Jean is freaking out because my Dad’s sister is coming by this afternoon to meet me. Apparently, she had no idea me and mom existed.”

He stopped short. Julie ran into him, muttering about stupid men under her breath. John didn’t know if she meant him or her late, unlamented husband, and he didn’t care. Janet stopped, too, eyeing Beth as if she’d just pulled out a live grenade and waved it around. He figured she must have tried to convince the girl to approach the subject more carefully, but well, Beth was young. Teenagers weren’t known for their tact.

“Your father has a sister?” He very carefully did not modify the ‘father’ part of his question with asshole, deadbeat, loser, but he wanted to. Oh, did he want to. But no, he was an adult and he had to set an example. “And she’s coming here?” he asked. His appetite had abruptly vanished despite the delectable smells coming from the kitchen.

“Um—” Beth looked away.

John clenched his hands and shoved them in his coat pockets. It wouldn’t do to let his niece know how pissed-off he was, still, after all this time. He gripped the fabric on the inside of his pockets so hard his fingers ached. He remembered shoving his fists into the asshole’s face, despite the crippling pain of his newly reconstructed shoulder. He remembered the satisfying sensation of the asshole’s nose breaking into several distinct pieces. He’d also kicked the bastard in the nuts and still didn’t feel the least bit sorry because he remembered the bruises all over his sister’s face. And the cut on Beth’s, the one that had finally made something inside him snap.

“Why?” he gritted out finally, glaring at the wall over Julie’s head. He noted that the finish on the stair bannister needed to be touched up.

Julie’s shoulders hunched. “She had no idea he had a kid.”

“So?” Why was that a reason for waltzing into their lives?

Janet sighed and put a hand on his arm. Brave woman.

“Apparently he’d done a number on her, too, when they were younger, before she moved clear across the country to get away from him and their father. She had no idea he had a daughter until he died last year and the authorities contacted her to take care of his stuff.”

“I still don’t understand why she’s coming here.” John shrugged off her hand and unzipped his coat. The guilt he thought he’d feel for putting the bastard in the ground still didn’t show up. God. If he didn’t give his hands something to do he was going to punch something and his sisters didn’t like it when he did that. He knew his reactions were all wrong for the situation, but sometimes he just couldn’t help it. Situations where the people he loved were threatened shoved him right back into combat mode. His instinct was to protect, and this made him feel like danger was headed their way.

Julie shrugged. “She called and asked. Said she was considering moving back to Pennsylvania for work, and wanted to meet her niece.” She took his coat from him and smoothed a hand over the fabric. “She sounds nice. She’s coming here to meet everyone. If you ask me, that takes guts.” She looked up at him, her sweet face suddenly drawn. “And that’s why we wanted you here.” She paused, took a deep breath. “In case something goes wrong.”

He stared at her for a moment, her brown eyes showing all the pain she’d suffered at the hands of that bastard and he sighed. He smoothed her hair over her forehead and she leaned into his hand.

“If I’d known he was hitting you, I would have come home sooner,” he said.

She shrugged. “He wasn’t, you know. Hitting me. He wasn’t even around until about a year before your accident.”

John growled. “He should have stayed the hell away from our family.”

She turned. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Talking doesn’t help. It never did.” She headed for the kitchen. Janet gave him a look and took off after her.

John closed his eyes and tried to count to ten, but before he got to five, Beth was there, tugging at his hand. “Come on. Aunt Jenn made your favorite stuff for dinner, Uncle John.” She smiled tremulously at him and he relaxed. He never could deny her a damn thing, and she knew it.

“Yeah, okay, squirt,” he said, just to see her expression go sour. She hated that nickname. John didn’t care. He loved his niece and his sisters beyond all reason. As he followed her into the warm kitchen, he supposed that was all right. Family was supposed to stick together.

© 2013 Marie E. Blossom

Exclusive sneak peek at Chapter 2 of Devotion at TRS’s Spookapalooza Party!

I’m still blogging at The Romance Studio’s Spookapalooza Party! Do you want to read chapter two? If so, CLICK HERE! It’s an exclusive peek at the beginning of the book!

If you want to read Chapter One first, click here.

If you comment on one of my posts, you can win a free copy of Devotion!

Spookapalooza Party at The Romance Studio today!

Hi everyone! I’m partying at The Romance Studio for a few days! Head on over (click on the banner and scroll to find my posts, or click here)—I don’t know how many times I can post (given that hurricane Sandy is heading right for me), but I’m planning on giving you the first chapter and a sexy excerpt from Devotion, and maybe a free story or two. I’m also planning a giveaway: I’m going to pick a winner at random from all those who comment on my posts at the Spookapalooza Party. The winner will get a free ebook copy of Devotion.

First chapter of Devotion!

Scroll down for the first chapter!

Click on the cover to buy from Amazon. Click here to read another excerpt.

Description:

Queen Ximena is devoted to her people and will gladly sacrifice herself for them, even if it means her death. Her bodyguard, Zefirino, is devoted to her and will gladly sacrifice himself to keep her alive.

When a terrible enemy suddenly attacks their planet, how will they protect those they love without losing each other? Together they survive an assassination attempt, invasion, and capture, but they both know that their duty may eventually tear them apart.

How can Ximena give her life for her people when she knows that Zefirino will die trying to save her? Who does she put first: her planet, or the lover she isn’t even supposed to have?

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Where to Buy: 

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Chapter One:

Ximena ran her fingers along the white marble walls as they walked. The cold surface soothed her nerves and helped her orient her thoughts properly. Too much confusion in her mind led to bad things, not that she’d ever let it get to that. Her authority was a heavy responsibility, but she’d been raised to shoulder it since birth.

The tunnel they moved down was brightly lit, almost enough to hurt her eyes, but not quite. The marble that sheathed everything might have looked sterile except for the few black doors that dotted the long passage. They were the secret entrances to every room in the Palace, used by only a few servants and security personnel. It was a major breach of protocol for her to be here.

“Why are you doing this, Xi?” Zefirino asked.

She shrugged tiredly, unsurprised by his question. She’d been waiting for it. “It is my responsibility.”

He put a hand in front of them, stopping her. The mark of his rank, Aegis Strike Leader, was tattooed on the palm of his right hand. She eyed the circle with the two strikes bisecting it and stifled a sigh. He let his hand drop. “No, it is not. It is too dangerous. I could question her for you. I should question her for you.”

She frowned at him. His handsome face was troubled. She wished she could reach out and smooth the worry lines away, but such familiarity would shock him, desperate as she was to feel his skin, accept that he was a living, breathing man who stood beside her always. She sighed out loud, instead. “We tried it your way and she would not speak. I need to do this.”

He looked at her steadily, the olive green of his eyes never wavering. Not for the first time she found herself admiring the cool green of his stare. He was a handsome man, not that she allowed herself to think of him that way very often. She looked down, wondering how he could stand there like that, so still. He never fidgeted. His tight black uniform hugged his body, highlighting the muscles hard-won through years of training. Weapons were strapped to his arms and legs, small black lumps against the synthetic fabric of his clothing.

“You know I am right,” she said finally, meeting his eyes again. She ignored the curious looks of the others in the passageway. They knew better than to question her presence here. She was their ruler, their queen. Zefirino was her personal bodyguard and head of the royal security force, as his father had been before him. Of all the people in the Palace, they had the right to go anywhere and do anything they wished. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the tension that coiled in her spine like a snake. The right to go anywhere meant that she went fewer places than most.

Zef licked his lower lip thoughtfully. She hid a smile, turning away from him. He would hate to be reminded of the one childhood habit he could not train away.

“Fine. But I will be there with you at all times.”

“I would expect nothing less,” she said, looking down the gleaming marble at the black door set in the curve of the tunnel. “It is time.”

He said nothing as she walked to the door and paused in front of it. After a moment’s hesitation, she put her eye to the security panel set at shoulder height. The electronics in the door identified her retinal pattern. With a flick of her eyelid, she keyed on the hidden camera so that she could look out into the courtyard. Sitting on the stone bench near the waterfall was the woman they’d come to see. Her long, brown hair was expertly arranged to fall over her left shoulder. Her lips were painted a deep red. Ximena controlled the urge to run her hand down her own hair. It’d taken an hour to wrestle her curly red mane into submission this morning.

“Well?” Zef asked.

“So pushy,” she murmured. Her companion flashed her a rare grin. Ximena rolled her eyes at him then squared her shoulders and pushed open the door.

The courtyard was shockingly humid after the cool, controlled environment of the Palace. Zefirino settled into position near the door, trying to blend into the wall and look menacing at the same time. Ximena allowed herself a quick smile. There was no way Zef could ever blend in, he was simply too tall. Too commanding. The door closed silently behind her as she walked forward, but the woman didn’t look up.

“I’ve been waiting almost an hour.” She examined her fingernails, still not bothering to acknowledge Xi’s presence.

Ximena halted several feet away, considering her words carefully. The woman did not bow or indicate in any way that she was in the presence of her queen. Strange. It would not do to appear defensive. She spent too much time in committee meetings to be entirely happy with the way the woman was acting. She had to deal with squabbling councilors nearly every day and wasn’t pleased to be here handling yet another difficult person when she would have preferred to be resting. All too soon she would have to attend dinner where yet more opportunities for lobbying would need managing. Compromise was a hallmark of her reign and the unification of all the outlying provinces the result, but that kind of policy took a great deal of patience. She stifled a sigh. Self-pity is not a queenly trait, she told herself.

“I hope you enjoyed the fountain. If one must wait, it is better to do so in the presence of beauty,” Ximena finally said, walking forward and gesturing at the water. It arced in an interwoven pattern of half-circles, changing at half-minute intervals. The scent of moisture hitting sun-baked concrete tickled her nose.

The woman swiveled around on the bench and set her feet on the ground. She wore a long, red robe, belted with a brown leather utility belt at her waist. Ximena took in the empty weapon slots with equanimity. Zef’s people would have searched the woman before letting her this far onto the Palace grounds.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the woman stated, eyeing Ximena’s simple white formal robe with a slightly raised brow.

Ximena’s cocked her head. “Are we to trade aphorisms all day or will you offer your name?”

The woman cocked her head. Her dark brown eyes glittered with some emotion Ximena didn’t recognize. “I am Cleo.”

Ximena clasped her hands together. “Cleo. What brings you to Palace City?”

Cleo pursed her lips, eyes darting to Zef and back again. She pivoted on the bench and looked out over the stone wall separating the Palace courtyard from the public grounds. Children shrieked as they ran into and out of the water.

“Look at them, so young. Their minds have nothing in them except the urge for play or sleep or food.” Cleo looked back over her shoulder at Ximena and smiled, but only half her mouth tilted up. “Don’t you think so?”

She looks more bitter than happy, Ximena thought, forcing her impatience down. Behind her she sensed Zef’s wariness as if it were a physical thing. He shifted his stance, relaxing and tensing his muscles in a precise sequence so that none would grow fatigued.

“They look also for love,” Ximena offered finally. She let her hands fall to her sides. No sense in holding the traditional greeting posture when the woman didn’t acknowledge it by voice or body movement.

“Love?” Cleo laughed. “Is that how you see children?”

Ximena didn’t allow even the tiniest bit of discomfort to mar her face. She didn’t know why the woman had demanded to see her or who she had bribed to get this far, but her very presence here in this courtyard said much about her ability to maneuver the slick, political dangers of Arcadia. “Children are a blessing.”

The woman stared at her with her perfect hair, perfect skin and lips, and Xi tried to appear calm and expectant, though she felt anything but. Suddenly the woman whipped her hand up, an antique pistol nestled like a viper within her fingers. Xi stepped back as the metal flashed in the sunlight—shocking and unexpected on this cloudless day. As if in slow motion, Ximena saw her squeeze the trigger but she was already diving behind the second stone bench, Zefirino too far away to protect her. She concentrated briefly, infusing her hands with energy, then picked up the bench and shoved it over as the sharp, percussive pop-pop-pop of the bullets hit the door, the wall, and the edge of the stone paving.

“Ximena!” Zef cried and Xi knew he was trying to get to her but he would be too late. She must save herself. Deep in her mind she relaxed her rigid control and let her training take over. Bullets from the pistol continued to fly around her and she spared an anguished thought for Zefirino, her companion since they were children, but she needed to focus when she used Vim. The ordinary citizens called it magic, and thought it an easy gift, but she knew better the price she paid for her strength. Magic was a child’s tale.  Vim was real and exacted some very difficult costs depending on what she did with it. To save her life and Zef’s, she would gladly pay.

She infused more energy into her muscles as quickly as she dared then picked up the bench a large man would have trouble pushing even a pebble’s length and ran with it towards the woman. The rough stone, designed to look rustic, warmed her palms. The water from the fountain looked like it was floating, as if gravity had disappeared, but Ximena couldn’t spare the time to consider the changes in her mind when she used Vim as she always had before. This was no meditation exercise. Several bullets hit the stone, it vibrated minutely, and then she was on top of Cleo, shoving the stone down onto her. She thought the woman would die instantly with two tons of weight on top of her body, but instead she struggled, pushing up against the bench with inhuman strength. Ximena shoved down and heard the woman’s bones crack. Horrible. She pushed harder, trying to finish it, but Cleo shoved one last time. The bench shifted up and off her body for a moment, then crashed down. She didn’t move after that.

How did she do that? No one is that strong, Ximena thought, shocked, then her thoughts fractured and reality zoomed into her body and mind like a glider hitting a wall. She gasped and stepped out of the way of the bench sliding down and off the woman’s body. It tumbled to the ground with a hollow boom. Fragments of the broken stone caught in Ximena’s robe.

“Xi! Are you hurt?” Zefirino was finally there. He had his hands on her arms and Ximena thought she might pass out from the shock of his warm palms on her skin for the first time in decades. His terror for her had clearly overthrown years of training.

“I am fine, Zef. I am unhurt, see?” She gestured as best she could with his fingers still wrapped around her forearms. He looked down, a dull flush rising over his olive skin. He dropped her arms and stepped back.

“My apologies, my queen.”

Ximena suddenly felt like sobbing. One touch, just one and I am undone. “No.” She waved a hand. It trembled and she hugged it to her waist. “No apologies are necessary, Zefirino.” She explained away their lapse with a shake of her head.

“The security recordings—”

“Will show you rushing to my defense,” Ximena stated. She turned and looked at the red ruin of the woman. I did that, she thought very quietly to herself. A part of her mourned the necessity, but as always, her sense of duty took precedence. “The children?” The silence of the courtyard felt oppressive. Even the water seemed to fall more softly.

“Evacuated at the first shot,” Zef said. He looked away. “I saw to them first.”

Ximena knew he regretted his actions.

“Zef.” Cautiously she put a hand on his arm. Startled, he whipped his head around. His green eyes held tears. “Zefirino, you did what I would have ordered. It is the most sacred rule of our society that children are to be protected.”

He swallowed. “But you are my queen. My duty is to you first, always.”

“No! In this I am nothing more than an ordinary woman. A woman grown and quite capable of looking after myself. You did what was right. You did right, choosing the correct path above all else, just as you always have and will.”

He searched her face and Ximena hoped he saw her unshaken belief in his fidelity. He must have, for he gave a short nod and stepped back. “I do not understand how she could have hidden the pistol.”

Ximena took a deep breath and edged toward the body. “I do not either. We have both been over the protocols a dozen times, as have your men.”

Zef crouched down, poking at the woman’s skull with his telescoping stick weapon. “Xi. Something is odd here.”

She grimaced, but obediently moved closer. She could hear the sounds of Zef’s security detail moving up through the public courtyard. They had only moments before chaos would be upon them. “What is it?”

He glanced at her then plucked a fiber from the mess of red on the stone. “This woman is not human.” He frowned. “Or not entirely human”

Ximena leaned closer, staring at the piece of fiber in his hand. “Zef, surely not.”

“I know, it sounds crazy.” He poked some more, plunging fingers into what used to be a living brain.

Ximena leaned closer, ignoring the stench of sun-heated blood congealing around them. What she saw beneath Zef’s fingers made her heart seize in her chest. “Is that—?”

“Yes.” Zefirino showed her the silicon circuit he’d teased from the mass of brain tissue. “She is a synthetic life form. An android. A myth made real.”

Ximena stared at his hand. His fingers, so familiar to her, held the nightmare her great-grandmother had foreseen in a Vim dream two centuries ago. She closed his fingers over the chip, not caring that the blood coated hers as well. “This must remain our secret.”

Zef nodded, his expression both disturbed and resolute. Their eyes met and she saw the knowledge of what had just occurred in his expression. He was the only other living person who knew what her grandmother had dreamed, all those years ago. He knew because they’d been raised together as companions, as playmates, as friends, even though she was royal and he was not.

“You have my honor in your hands, as always, my queen.” Zef wiped the chip against his black uniform then bowed his head over their fingers. He handed it to her under cover of her robe and she slid it into her hidden pocket before the others found them with it.