It’s Peach Season, Y’all

This week’s update from The Bitter Southerner is all about peaches. (Do y’all read The Bitter Southerner? If you don’t, you should – it’s the best overview of the best things about the so-called New South I’ve seen; I like it way better than the Oxford American.) August is prime peach season, and I am very much a fan. The best boyfriend present I ever got from anybody before I met my darling Thunder was a gallon bucket of fresh peaches straight off the tree, still warm from the sunshine. And as anybody who’s ever driven past the Peachoid water tower in Gaffney can tell you, they are an inherently sensuous fruit. Legend has it that Eve gave Adam an apple; historians who speculate about that kind of thing say no, it must have been a pomegranate. Nonsense, says I – no woman would have risked getting herself and her lover kicked out of Eden for the privilege of picking out pomegranate seeds. Me, I’m pretty sure it must have been a peach.

So anyway, feeling as I do, naturally I wrote a story about peaches and sex. It’s the anchor story of my anthology Eat the Peach, and this is an excerpt. The heroine, Susannah, is a filmmaker who has just crashed and burned at a festival and come home to rest and regroup at her Grandmama Ikey’s peach farm.

***

I was at Grandma Ikey’s house for three more days before I met Dylan. Grandma Ikey couldn’t have been more amazing. She was a lot older than I had expected her to be. All my friends’ grandmothers were still holding on to that raw-boned, hair-dyed tightness thing. But Ikey was beautiful. She wore her hair in a long, white braid down her back, and her body was curvy and soft. Any old dude would have counted himself lucky to get a piece of that. And sitting beside her on the back porch shelling peas, I noticed that we had the exact same hands, and for some reason it gave me hope for the first time since I’d gotten on that bus in Colorado.

The next morning when we were making breakfast, we heard a motorcycle pull up in the backyard. “Oh good,” she said. “I want you to meet Dylan.”

She had already told me about Dylan. He owned the land right next to hers. He grew cotton and soy beans on his land, but he leased Grandma Ikey’s land to grow the peaches, and the two of them owned a farm stand and ice cream parlor out on the highway together. The way she had described him and twinkled when she talked about him, I had expected him to be about her age; I thought he must have been her boyfriend. But when we walked out on the back porch, we found a country hunkerrific of no more than thirty-five climbing off the bike.

“Morning, Ikey,” he said. “How are you?” He had messy reddish-blondish hair and a scruffy beard, and he was built to pick up trucks.

“I’m just grand, darling,” Ikey said as he came up the steps. “Just grand.” He put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek, and she laughed like a girl. “Dylan, meet my granddaughter, Susannah.”

“Granddaughter?” He offered me his hand to shake. “I can’t believe it.” I took it, and a kind of warm, electric current ran through me that made me want to smile and hide at the same time. “You must be tall for your age.”

“Now, now, stop all that,” Ikey scolded, still smiling. “Come on inside; we were just about to have breakfast.”

“Thank you, Ikey, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I figure I’ve got just about enough time this morning to change the plugs on that old truck of yours.”

“Oh, piss on that truck,” Ikey said. “Come eat your breakfast.”

“Now Ikey—”

“I made biscuits.” Eve offering the apple couldn’t have looked slyer.

Dylan looked at me and grinned like we had a secret, and I noticed he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. “Well, I can’t say no to that.”

I hadn’t seen Ikey make biscuits, but as soon as we walked in, she took a big pan full out of the oven, plump and cushiony and golden brown. “Get the honey out of the cabinet, Susannah,” she said. “And see if you can’t find a jar of those peach preserves in the back.”

“You told me you were out!” Dylan said.

“I might be,” she said, putting the biscuits on a pink willow plate. “Look way in the back.”

“Susannah, your grandmamma makes the best peach preserves in the world,” Dylan said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “We get people stopping at the stand on their way back to Yankeeville from the beach every year just to buy a fresh jar. Last year she didn’t make any, and we just about had to set up a crying pew out front.”

“Stop being so silly,” Ikey said, dishing up the scrambled eggs and bacon. “You want me to slice up a couple of tomatoes?”

“Not on my account,” Dylan said.

“Susannah likes them, though, don’t you, sweetheart?” she said, patting my cheek as she passed.

“I do.” It had been so long since anyone had noticed I liked something without me saying so, I was shocked. But I had eaten a sliced, homegrown tomato from her garden every meal since I’d arrived, so I supposed it wasn’t all that shocking. Still, it was nice. “Grandma Ikey, are these the preserves?” I pulled out a sticky mason jar full of amber goo.

“Oh good,” she said, taking it. “Half a jar left.” She set it on the table in front of Dylan. “Now let me get that tomato.”

“You’ll have to persuade Ikey to teach you her recipe,” Dylan said.

“That might be arranged,” Ikey said, putting down the sliced tomatoes and leading me to the table. She took both our hands and said a brief grace.

“That sounds great,” I said. “Learning the recipe, I mean.” Dylan took four of the biscuits and broke them open on his plate, then slathered each one with preserves. “Is it really that good?”

“Taste.” He popped a piece of biscuit in my mouth.

“Oh my God,” I said, actually moaning with my mouth full, it was so good. Sweet and tangy with an edge of spice, perfect with the hot, flaky biscuit.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Susannah,” Ikey said, patting my hand. “It’s only a biscuit.”

“So good,” I said. “Grandmamma, that’s amazing.”

“Aren’t you sweet?” she said, but I could see from her eyes she was pleased. “Dylan, eat some eggs and bacon before you give yourself diabetes.”

He grinned that secret grin at me again. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Maybe I will teach you that recipe,” Ikey said.

“I’d love that,” I said. “If I’m here that long. I mean, I don’t know how long I’ll be staying.”

“Are you just here for a visit?” Dylan asked.

“Sort of.” All the way there on the bus, I had tried to imagine what I’d say when people asked me what had happened. It was all so humiliating and silly, and besides, what would people like Ikey and Dylan know or care about stuff like my film career, anyway? But he had asked, so I supposed I had to try. “I’m a filmmaker.”

“Wow,” he said, looking genuinely impressed.

“Oh, you don’t want to hear about all that,” Ikey said. “Besides, I want to talk about you. Did I hear that fiancée of yours tearing out of here after midnight last night?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dylan looked embarrassed, but I couldn’t tell if it was for me or for him. “I made her pretty mad, I think.”

For the next twenty minutes, the two of them hashed over his engagement to a woman Ikey obviously couldn’t stand—a schoolteacher from the sound of it. But I couldn’t have cared less. I couldn’t believe she had just shut me down that way. I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, lost in my own thoughts.

“I better get started on those plugs,” Dylan finally said, pushing back from the table. “It was nice to meet you, Susannah.”

“You too.” I shook his hand and was again vaguely aware of how warm he felt. But I was still busy being mad at Ikey.

“I hope to see you again while you’re here.” He kissed my grandmother’s cheek. “I’ll leave the keys on the hook.”

Ikey stood at the back door and watched him go while I got up and cleared the table. “That is one fine specimen of human,” she said. “A woman could do a lot worse than to get herself lost with something like that.”

“He’s cute.” Botox hadn’t made it out here to the sticks yet, but the horny old lady trope apparently had.

“Baby ducks are cute.” She turned back to me. “That’s a man.” She saw what I was doing. “Oh, thank you, sweetheart.”

“You’re welcome.” I put the dishes in the sink. “It’s the least I can do after crashing on you like this.” I squirted in soap and turned on the tap.

“You came home,” she said, putting the butter in the fridge. “Everybody needs to sometimes.” She picked up the jar of peach preserves, now almost empty. “I’m glad you came.” She screwed on the lid and put it back in the cabinet. “You better put some hot in that dishwater, honey, or the germs will carry us off.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t planned to actually wash the dishes, just sort of soak them.

“I’ve been waiting on those elves that come to finish half done housework all my life,” she said. “They haven’t shown up yet.” She handed me a dishtowel. “I’ll wash. You dry.”

“I still cannot understand what Dylan sees in that girl of his,” she said, turning on the hot water and bathing both of our faces with steam. “Why waste your time chasing after somebody who won’t want you until you agree to be somebody else? But she’s got her mind on that piece of land—and that ass, unless she’s dumber than she looks.” She handed over a slippery plate. “You’ll meet her eventually, I’m sure. Then you’ll see.”

“Grandmamma, why wouldn’t you let me talk about my movie?” I could have brooded in silence for several more hours; it’s one of my best things. But I didn’t think Ikey would care. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“I’m very proud of you,” she said without missing a beat, as if this had been our topic of conversation all along. “But you aren’t ready to talk to people about that.”

I wanted to argue with her. But of course she was right.

****

Wanna know how she gets rid of the bitchy fiancee? Get your copy here.

Three Things I Love (About Winter Knight)

winter knightWinter Knight, the book I have coming out on February 11, 2020, is the only romance I’ve ever written just for me. I love all my kissy book stories, all my heroines, all my heroes. But with Winter Knight, I asked myself, if I was on Amazon or at the bookstore looking for a romance to sweep me off my feet, what would that book be? And then I wrote it. Here are three things it has that would make me love it even if it wasn’t mine.

1 – An Enchanted Castle: When I was a sprout, my favorite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of a plain, pissy little orphan girl who discovers happiness and friends exploring the dark corners and overgrown gardens of an English manor house. When I got a little older, I fell head over heels for the YA novel Beauty by Robin McKinley. This fairy tale retelling is as much about the castle as it is about the Beast, and if you like the Disney version of this story, you like this book–they ripped off McKinley shamelessly. I’ve toured Biltmore House more times than I can count, and in Ireland, I spent more time wandering through castles than I did drinking Guinness. Something about walking through grand, empty ballrooms and exploring twisting hallways is endlessly fascinating to me.

In Winter Knight, the heroine, Christabel finds herself in a huge, mostly-empty manor house in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. She is the unexpected guest of a mysterious handsome stranger, Bernard, and his even-more-mysterious staff of servants who anticipate her every need. And she spends an awful lot of the story poking around empty nooks and crannies and discovering magical secrets.

2 – A Beastly Brainiac: Speaking of Beauty and the Beast … Anybody who knows me or my husband knows I’m a sucker for a smartass. Washboard abs and big bank accounts are lovely, but it’s the big brains and snarky quips that really light me up. (Alexandra Christian calls this being a sapiosexual.) From Sherlock in Sherlock to Doc Holliday in Tombstone to Deadpool to Tony Stark to Hamlet to Fox Mulder to Henry V to Harry Dresden to Quincy Harker, I love’em better when they’re smart and damanged and just the slightest bit mean. And if they also happen to be just a little bit crazy, that can only help. (Not for nothing do I call my husband Evil Genius.)

Bernard is a brilliant scientist who works alone in his lab in the bowels of his mansion. He’s equal parts heartthrob (he does have those abs because did I mention this is my fantasy?) and goofball (he wears sweatpants and geeky t-shirts under his lab coat and uses Rick and Morty Band-Aids on his boo-boos). He’s bossy and snarky–at one point, Christabel tells him, “Don’t be an asshole,” and he replies, “Can’t help it. It was a birth defect.” But he’s also kind and protective and fiercely romantic. And magical. And he’s read all of Christabel’s books. And y’all, I just adore him.

3 – A Heroine Like Me: I have a former fan fiction goddess’s horror of writing a Mary Sue, but with Christabel, I decided I didn’t care and went for it. She is a romance novelist. She isn’t a virgin in her early twenties; when the story begins, she’s on her way to get a facelift. She’s successful, capable, smart, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. She desperately wants true love, but she has a hard time trusting her instincts and an even harder time trusting other people. She’s a hopeful romantic, and when she meets Bernard, she’s thrilled, intrigued, and scared to death. And I just adore her, too.

I wrote this story to distract myself from all the bad stuff in the world, and for me, it worked. I really hope reading it will do the same for y’all.

An Outlaw Meaner than Krampus

bury me notHey Kittens – in case I haven’t mentioned it, there’s what I consider to be a really sweet Christmas story in Bury Me Not called “Cowboys and Krampus.” Here’s a little sneak peek:

By suppertime, the snow was drifted halfway up the windows downstairs, and the hotel was full enough to bust. People had drifted in all afternoon like ghosts in thick coats dusted white—trappers, gamblers, a traveling preacher, even a couple of farm families with kids. Just as Mrs. Bhaer and her daughters were setting the table, the big doors opened again, and two men came inside, one carrying a fiddle case. “Hooray!” the oldest daughter hollered, clapping her hands. “Now we can have dancing!”

They put me next to Cade at the table for supper, of course, and by the time we tucked in to Clara’s special brandy pudding, we were managing to be civil. But when the fiddler and his friend the piano player tuned up, we got as far away from one another in the big main room as we could get.

After a while Thomas came over to where I was loitering by the hearth. “Hey Daisy,” he said, offering me his hand. “Care to take a turn?”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Cade had parted a fellow’s hair with the butt of his rifle in Kansas City for less.

“Aw, it’s Christmas,” he said. “I’ll risk it.”

I looked over at Cade, who was back to playing cards with one of the farmers, the preacher, and a professional gambler who would probably fleece the lot of them. “Yeah, I’m his fake wife now,” I said. “He probably won’t even notice.”

Thomas laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. What’s got you in such a fidget, anyhow? Don’t you like Christmas?”

“Not especially.” Luis and Clara were having a sweet little smooch under the mistletoe. Our Mexican bandito was wearing a clean white shirt and had wet his hair and slicked it down flat until he looked like a bank clerk.

“Don’t be like that. These kids get a real hoot out of Saint Nicholas. I’ve been carrying a toy train for that bad little Klaus in my saddlebag since May just to see the look on his face.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Thomas.” Klaus and one of the farm kids were hiding under a table near Cade and his cronies, plotting mischief. I hoped they gave them all a hot foot. “But Saint Nicholas can kiss my ass.”

“From the mouth of a lady,” Thomas said. “What did poor ol’ Saint Nick do to cross you, Daisy?”

“Nothing, since he ain’t real,” I said. He just kept looking at me, waiting. “It’s a pitiful story.” Still waiting, one eyebrow raised. “When I was nine years old, there was a dolly in the window of the general store,” I said, turning my back on the room to face the fire. “She was the prettiest thing I ever saw, in a white dress, a bride. She had blue eyes and yellow curls like me, and I stood at the window for a while every day for a month just staring at her, wishing she was mine. My daddy got wind of it, and he told me not to worry, that if I was good, he was just positive Saint Nicholas would bring her to me for a Christmas present.”

“Oh hell,” Thomas said.

“Oh hell is right,” I said. “I wanted that dolly so bad, I forgot my daddy was the town drunk and wouldn’t know the truth if he met it in the road. Three days before Christmas, that dolly disappeared from the store window, and I was just sure he had gotten her for me. He kissed me good night on Christmas Eve, and I just knew when I woke up, I would have my doll. I even had a name for her all picked out. I was going to call her Charlotte Russe after a sign I had seen in an eating house.

Thomas was standing beside me, blocking my view of the room. “I’m just guessing it didn’t work out that way.”

“Not quite, no.” I was glad he was hiding me from the others. I had tears in my eyes for a dolly I hadn’t seen for twenty years and had never owned; I felt like God’s own fool. “When I woke up, there wasn’t no doll nor no daddy either. I had to go down to the saloon and scrape him up to keep the sheriff from throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly. Then as we were walking back, him leaning on my shoulder singing, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ like some damned idiot, I saw this wagon full of folks riding past us on their way to church. They had a girl about my age; I knew her from school.” I wiped the foolish tears away. “She was sitting up front with her daddy, and my Charlotte Russe was sitting on her lap.”

“Damn,” Thomas said, glancing back at something over my shoulder. “That might be the saddest tale I ever heard.”

Before he finished saying it, I looked back and saw Cade right behind me. Before I could say a word, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder.

“What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bastard?” I said, kicking and beating on his back as he carried me to the stairs. “Put me down!”

“Nope.” Everybody in the room looked shocked, but nobody made a move to help me. Luis was grinning like a possum.

“Y’all sleep tight now,” Thomas called. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

Good Grief

angel-art-black-and-white-96127I know I’m late, y’all, sorry. My dad is in the hospital. He fell again, and even though we’re still very hopeful that he’s going to be absolutely okay, it’s a whole big thing. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent knows what I mean. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent who is former military and a graduate of The Citadel REALLY knows what I mean.

I’m usually a pretty roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, but this has really thrown me off my game. And I know it’s because it’s taken me straight back to when my mom died. Unlike Dad, who has been in near-perfect health my whole life, Mama was in and out of the hospital from the time I was eight years old until she died eleven years ago. One of the underlying themes of my entire life and the lives of my sisters was Mama being sick, and the last few weeks when we knew that this time she wasn’t getting better is as close to hell as I ever want to see. Dad’s situation isn’t nearly as dire, but just being in that setting brings it all back.

At that time, I had just finished up my last contract with Pocket Books and just decided I wasn’t interested in writing what they were interested in publishing next from me. My sister was publishing with Ellora’s Cave at the time and looking to write something a little less sexy. Right after the funeral, she found a submissions call for angel romances, and she shared it with me. I needed a distraction, so I decided to give it a try. And I ended up writing the book that eventually became Misguided Angel. (The title is borrowed from a really lovely Cowboy Junkies song you can listen to here.) And y’all, I’ll be honest. It’s crazy.

The heroine is an artist who has just lost her husband to cancer. Her mother was a suicide who Kelsey believes was delusional because she had visions of angels. Kelsey is seriously considering suicide herself, so her dead husband sends Tristan, the angel who guards souls as they transition from one life to the next, to comfort her and stop her. So Tristan, bless him, tries, and in the process, he falls in love with her. But of course when he tells her the truth about himself, she thinks she’s going crazy, too. Lucifer is the big bad–he wants to use Kelsey as leverage to make Tristan fall.

And some of this book is the best stuff I’ve ever written. And a whole lot of this book is just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. It’s been finished for a while, and I’ve always been conflicted about publishing it just because it’s so raw and weird and so different from everything else I’ve ever done. When I first heard the narrator’s audition for the audiobook version, I bawled my eyes out all over again. Even though it has a sort of happy ending, it’s a sad, sad book. It might well even be a triggering book; there’s a trigger warning on the Amazon page for it. I have often considered asking my publisher to pull it.

But every time I think I will, the same strange thing happens. Some reader will come up to me at a signing or a convention and ask me if I’m the Lucy Blue who wrote Misguided Angel. And when I say I am, they will tell me how my wackadoodle romance novel comforted them when they were completely shattered with grief. I’ve had people tell me my version of faith speaks to them. I’ve had people say it helped just watching my heroine go through the same kind of pain they were feeling and coming out the other side.

For whatever reason, my crazy baby of a book spoke to them in a way that made things better for them in the same way that writing it made things better for me. So while I doubt it will ever sell a lot of copies, I will always consider it a success.

Free E-Books, No Stealing!

adult-blur-bracelets-1324859Everybody loves free stuff. Some readers love it so much, they’re bankrupting writers by supporting pirate sites. The crazy thing is, it is perfectly possible to get all kinds of great free fiction without bending the rules or pissing off your favorite author. Sites like Prolific Works have shiny, well-produced, absolutely-bug-free E-books from every genre available for download—short stories, excerpts, even full-length novels.

For example, I have an excerpt listed from my latest full-length novel, American Starlet. It’s not a sample; it’s a short-story-sized chunk with a beginning, middle and end. And it should give you a good idea of what the book is like (snarky and steamy and just a little bit over-the-top) for the ever-popular bargain price of absolutely nothing:

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/Y8XyPWW2…

Patrick Dugan, author of the Darkest Storm science fiction series (including Storm Forged, winner of the 2019 Imadjinn Award for Best Science Fiction) has an extremely nifty steampunk adventure up—and did I mention it’s free?

https://claims.prolificworks.com/free/DPYANcbB

Science fiction/urban fantasy authors Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin and their M/M romance-writing alter ego, Morgan Brice, have all kinds of great stuff listed. And they’ve tied them in with multiple group giveaways so you can get access to all kinds of great stuff with one easy click:

139 FREE fantasy & paranormal 2019 Reading Giveaway @Prolific_Works with my full Restless Nights @MorganBriceBook story & excerpt from Spells Salt & Steel @GailZMartin Ends 11/4 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/td69kKw8e6DiegzGQp1n

17 FREE fantasy & scifi reads in Good Omens giveaway @Prolific_Works giveaway w excerpt from Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/2WydAYcc1ft3a4z41HZb

9 FREE scifi reads in Electric Dreams giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat @LNMartinAuthor Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NHINlDscEUuqpFKYbu5y

17 FREE paranormal reads in Something Wicked giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpts from Spells Salt & Steel and Sons of Darkness Ends 11/10 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/7zZmgq0kpCiVkVlkTGNs

106 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Discover New Series giveaway @Prolific_Works w full Reconciling Memory and The Last Mile stories + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/LXvGYAaAlhqYVuDmiBaH

155 FREE sci-fi/fantasy reads in Fantastical SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w full The Last Mile story + excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/NzQXkP23yQLrLYlM62dA

77 FREE sci-fi reads in Discover New SF giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Salvage Rat Ends 12/31 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/MtsrZbfglhUGB5jprvnD

50 FREE paranormal/horror books in Things That Go Bite in the Night giveaway @Prolific_Works w excerpt from Sons of Darkness @GailZMartin Ends 11/1 https://claims.prolificworks.com/gg/ulH61YGooVnHnQIlPRd8

Some of these are ending soon, so check’em out now! Happy Halloween!!!

 

Lucy’s Halloween Bedtime Story: Dead-Sperado

Guess what, kittens? I’m on the YouTubes! My Evil Genius hubby and my publisher rallied around and helped me do a recording of myself reading “Dead-Sperado,” the first story from my comic weird western romance collection, Bury Me Not. In it, saloon dove Daisy means to seduce and detain the dreaded outlaw Elbert Cade until the posse shows up. But he turns out to be a damned fine seducer himself. She’s starting to feel a real fondness for him just as the zombies attack.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

bell-book-candle-black-backless-evening-gownThe Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t the only Christmas/Halloween crossover movie ever made. There’s also Bell, Book and Candle, a smart and surprisingly twisted romantic comedy starring Kim Novak and James Stewart. It opened on Christmas Day 1958 and takes place at Christmas–the climax happens at midnight on Christmas Eve. And while one big plot point gives me serious indigestion, it’s one of my absolute favorites.

Kim Novak is Gillian Holroyd, a witch who runs an art gallery in New York–this is one of those New York movies where all the people, sets, and costumes are gloriously glamorous. James Stewart is Shepherd Henderson, a publisher who lives in the apartment upstairs.  (We know he’s a classy guy because he’s got two last names.) Our girl Gillian isn’t looking for romance, far from it. She’s very happy living single with her familiar, a gorgeous Siamese cat named Pyewacket. Besides, any witch who falls in love for real risks losing all her powers. (That’s the part that makes my stomach gurgle just a bit.) She’s much too sensible and kind-hearted to vamp some poor sap with her supernatural charms (including but not limited to looking just Kim Novak) for the sake of a cheap thrill. But Shep’s just asking for it. First he annoys her Aunt Queenie, another witch played by Elsa Lancaster of Bride of Frankenstein fame. Then he has the audacity to be engaged to the bullying pill who tortured Gillian in college. How could any witch resist?

The whole “a witch can’t love and still do magic” thing sticks in my craw, of course, along with Gillian’s many lamentations about wanting to be “normal.” But watching Novak and Stewart banter and succumb is worth the allowances to be made. These are the same two who had steamed up the screen earlier that year as the doomed lovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and it’s lovely to see them in something with laughs. And while the paranormal angle is a little watered-down by modern urban fantasy standards, it still has a pretty delicious bite, particularly for 1958.

Turner Classic Movies is showing Bell, Book and Candle at 8 pm EDT on Thursday, October 3, 2019 (today if you’re reading this on posting day), and I highly recommend it. And if you want six versions of my own take on witchy girls in love, check out Eat the Peach: And Other Wicked Tales, available now from Falstaff Crush.

eat the peach

WIP: The Adventuress and Her Monsters

blur-calligraphy-close-up-51159Heya Kittens!

Since my real life is boring as the summer winds down, I thought y’all might prefer a sneak peek at my current work-in-progress (aka the thing I’m escaping into lately). It’s a a true gothic romance set in late-Victorian England, and the heroine is an American heiress doing the husband-hunting tour. And she meets this dangerous but oh so gorgeous guy …

This bit comes about 10,000 words into the book. I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year, so come 2020, watch this space!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

When Arabella arrived home from the ball a scant hour before dawn, she found a letter waiting on her pillow. “Maisie, what is this?”

“A man brought it around midnight,” the maid said. “The hotel manager brought it up himself and said the man insisted you receive it as soon as you returned.”

“So you didn’t see the man who left it?” The heavy envelope was sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal marked with an elaborate “D.”

“No, miss. But I got the idea he must have been someone very important or else …” She broke off. “No, miss. I didn’t see him.”

“Or else what?”

“You’ve seen the hotel manager,” the girl said. “He’s a right old dragon who thinks himself mighty as Herod. But I would almost say he looked frightened. He made me swear I would give you that before you went to sleep.”

“And so you have.” She set the envelope on the tray with her cocoa. “Thank you, Maisie.”

The gray light of dawn was creeping around the heavy drapes when she settled back on her pillows and slit open the envelope.

“My dear Miss O’Bryan,” it began in a clear, bold hand. “Arabella. I realize it is hardly proper that I should write you such a letter or deliver it in such a fashion. But I will not be easy in my mind until I know I have done all in my power to warn you. Once you have read this, you must proceed as your own conscience, heart, and judgment might lead you. But I will consider myself absolved.

“My cousin is not what he seems. He is as kind and as intelligent, and his wealth and position are all that any man might hope for—or that any woman might desire in a husband. But he has other qualities and other passions beyond the scope of the usual English gentleman. There are aspects to his character and person which are not so generally to be desired nor so easy to explain.

“Reading this, you may believe I consider you a fortune hunter unworthy of my bloodline and that I mean only to frighten you away. I assure you, Arabella, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as we met this morning, I saw in you a rare spirit and intelligence, a worthy soulmate for any man but particularly suited to Gabriel. I am convinced he has fallen in love with you and with good reason. I wish I could rejoice at this, but I cannot. Impetuous and hot-tempered as he can be, it is not his habit to grind young men of the peerage under his heel as he did this morning. Nor is he known for making himself the object of gossip. He would have done neither of these things if you had not captured his heart and were not worthy of its loss.

“But there’s so much you don’t know.

“I wish I could explain my objection more plainly, if it is even an objection at all. But some secrets are not mine to tell. So I will only caution you thus. Do not take up Gabriel as a lark. Do not mistake his humor for lightness of spirit or his charm for shallow art. He means everything he says, even—especially!—when it seems he does not. He may play the fool, but he is a man of deep purpose. And his quest is all. If he makes you a part of his world, you will not easily escape it. And your reputation is not all you will imperil if you try.

“Tread carefully, Arabella.

“Your servant—Dante Durant.”

She refolded the letter with trembling fingers. Her first animal instinct was to throw it into the fire, burn it to ashes, and pretend she had never received it.

But that was foolishness. She was jumping at shadows because she was so tired. For all his pretty protests to the contrary, Dante obviously found her unsuitable—too American, too vulgar, too much trouble. She resolved to set his letter aside and get some much-needed rest. In the morning, she might well destroy the letter. She might respond to it. She might even keep it to show Gabriel—not immediately, of course, but some sweet future time when it would make him laugh. Who knew? Perhaps the three of them might someday laugh about it together. She tucked the envelope under her book on her bedside table and turned down the lamp.

But she couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour as the sun rose behind the drapes, she got up and went to her writing desk.

“Dear Dr. Durant—Dante,” she began.

“I’m not sure what you meant to accomplish with your letter. If I were really in some kind of danger as you keep hinting, common decency would compel you to tell me precisely what that danger is. If you have the affection for your cousin you pretend and the regard for me you wrote of, what reasonable objection could you have to our forming an attachment?

“But like you, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You write of love and marriage—good heavens, Dante, I barely know the man! Let us get to know one another, please, before you predict disaster. Or in the alternative, keep your predictions to yourself.

“In short, my very dear sir, write what you mean or kindly leave me and your cousin in peace.

“Yours in friendship—Arabella O’Bryan”

She finished her signature with a flourish. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter into one of her own monogrammed envelopes. She copied Dante’s address carefully from his own letter, then took the packet out to the parlor, still dressed in nothing but her nightgown.

“Good morning,” she said to the hotel maid who had paused in her dusting to gawp at her. Judith’s morning correspondence was stacked neatly on the sideboard, waiting to be taken down to the hotel post. Arabella slipped her letter to Dante into the middle of the stack. Then she went back to bed and slept soundly until well past noon.

My Heroes Have Sometimes Been Cowboys

bury me notThe first grown-up movie I ever saw in a theater was The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. It came out in 1972, so I would have been eight years old. My dad has always been a die-hard Wayne fan (oh, the raging fights we’ve had about McClintock!), and in those days, first-run movies didn’t hang around our local theater long. My guess is my grandmother wasn’t available to babysit the one weekend it was playing, so Daddy told Mama most of the cast was under the age of sixteen and told himself I’d be fine. Either way, the first time I found myself in a movie that didn’t start off with a nature documentary or a Mickey Mouse cartoon, I saw John Wayne get shot. And it was glorious.

If you haven’t seen it, John Wayne is a cattle rancher who loses all of his ranch hands right before the big cattle drive and has to recruit a bunch of boys barely old enough to climb into the saddle to replace them. Bruce Dern plays the squirreliest, dirtiest, most evil polecat of a rustler ever to grace the silver screen. He’s the one who shoots and kills John Wayne, and his eventual comeuppance haunts me to this day. (If you ever read me write a villain getting killed by horse-dragging, rest assured, I bear them a grudge.) I suspect I only understood about half of what was going on in the story, but it sucked me in completely. And while I can’t find much good to say about John Wayne as a human being these days, I’m still a sucker for an even halfway decent Western. My current favorite is the remake of 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe (swoon!) and Christian Bale, which incidentally, my father the purist who loved the original absolutely hated. And yes, I have even seen Young Guns and Young Guns 2 multiple times; why would you even ask?

My own latest book release, Bury Me Not, blends this love of cowboys with my usual focus on history, horror, and romance. In three connected stories, saloon dove-turned-outlaw Daisy and her notorious gunslinger lover Cade battle zombies, vampires, and Krampus. (For those most beloveds who’ve been reading me since Little Red Hen Romance, two of the stories were released through LRH as singles, but the vampire story, the longest of the three, is brand new for this book.) And I love those two so much, I’m sure sometime soon I’ll have them battling something else. I can’t even tell you how much fun they are to write. As you can probably tell, these stories aren’t exactly serious; neither Larry McMurtry nor Annie Proulx has much to fear from me so far. But I think they do put across just how much I still love the great mythology of the American Wild West. I hope I get the details right enough that my dad might like them, too.

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter Seven

Two days into the voyage, the girl fell ill from her wounds. By late afternoon, she had fallen into a delirious stupor, and by nightfall, she was completely unconscious. Asmund’s men said nothing, but he caught them exchanging glances. He knew they hadn’t forgotten Stian’s warning that Maeve was a witch. If she had been any ordinary captive, he would have tossed her overboard before her death attracted evil spirits. But she had saved him. Even if he hadn’t developed a fondness for her, he couldn’t let her die.

Most of the women and children they had taken from the village were on a separate cargo ship, but a few had asked to stay close to Maeve, and he had allowed it. “You,” he said, pointing to the one who had told him where to find the hidden village children. “What is your name?”

“I am Luna.” She had two small sons, strong boys who met his eyes without fear.

“Come here.” He motioned her over to where Maeve lay glassy-eyed and still under a heavy fur. “Do you know how to help her?”

“Lady Maeve is the healer,” Luna said. “Better than her stupid mother ever was.” She looked at him shrewdly. “Didn’t she heal you?”

“Do something,” he said. “Why won’t she wake?”

“She burns.” She pulled back the fur and pulled up Maeve’s tunic to expose the shallow slash on her belly. He expected to find it red and festering with pus, but it was clean and looked nearly healed.

“Where else is she hurt?” he asked.

“Nowhere else, great prince,” the woman said. “I dressed her wounds myself.”

“Then why has she fallen into such a fever?” he demanded. “Why is she dying?”

“Because she has chosen to die.” Luna pulled the fur back over Maeve and made a sign of blessing or worship over her heart, folding her hands as if in prayer. “She is a child of the goddess.”

“She is a woman, just like you,” Asmund said. “Her mother was nothing more than a savage slut who doomed her own people for a trickster’s kisses.”

“Aye, she was that,” Luna said with a wry smile. “She was also the most powerful sorceress in seven generations.” She bathed Maeve’s face with cold water from the sea, and the girl stirred, but she didn’t wake. “She made this one in the spring ritual in consort with the dragon god.” She laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “I should know. My husband was her dragon.”

“Your rituals mean nothing,” Asmund said. He refused to believe that Maeve would simply decide to die and do it or that she even could. “Superstition.”

“Is it?” Luna said. “Then how is it you live?” He had no answer, and she smiled. “My husband loved Lady Maeve like a daughter, though he could never say it, not even to her.” She folded one of Maeve’s hands between her own. “He was one of you, you know—a Viking. He fell ill on his first raid when he was still just a boy. His people—your people—left him behind, and the dead queen’s mother took him in.”

“So Maeve is of Viking blood?” Asmund said.

“Yes, if that means anything to you,” Luna said. “Maybe that’s why she saved you.”

“So wake her,” Asmund said.

“I cannot,” Luna said. “If she has chosen to join the goddess, no soul on earth can compel her to return.” He saw pity in the woman’s eyes. “Let her go, great prince. She has saved you. What else can you want with her now?”

He yanked her to her feet. “Take her to the cargo ship; take all of them,” he said, shoving her at his brother. “She knows nothing.”

“Asmund, let them take the girl with them,” Hagen said, dropping his voice so the others might not hear. “Let her die with her own people.”

“She isn’t going to die,” Asmund said. “Just take the others away.”

The sea was calm, an endless plain of green glass all around them. He carried Maeve to the dragon’s head prow of the longship and settled himself there with the girl in his arms. For the rest of the day and into the night, his men avoided him, and he understood why. They thought he was reliving the terrible days after his wife had died. He had locked himself away in an empty house with her corpse until the king himself had come and ordered him to come out. But this was different. When Astrid had died, he had blamed the gods for taking her from him before her time. He had stood over her body and demanded that her soul be allowed to return, not so much for his sake but for the infant son who needed her. But of course the gods had said no, and in time, he had come to accept their wisdom.

But this was his fault. Maeve had saved him not just from death but from an eternity of wandering in a frozen hell. Tiny and fragile as she was, she had fought a fire demon for his life and won. And he had repaid her kindness by abandoning her and her people to a pig like Stian.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She was tucked against him like a child with her face cradled against his throat. Her skin was burning hot, and her breathing was shallow and slow. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m so sorry, little Maeve,” he repeated in her own language. “Please come back.”

******

In her fever dream, Maeve wandered in a forest. The trees were taller than any she had ever seen with thick, black trunks and deep green needles. It was spring, and the air smelled clean and sweet. Fallen needles made a soft carpet under her bare feet, and a warm breeze ruffled her hair. Tiny blue and white flowers peeped out from the bracken like the memory of snow. She felt peaceful but not contented. She was sad because she was alone.

The white vixen she had seen in her vision before slipped out of a thicket and crossed her path. “Wait,” she said, hurrying to follow. The fox was running through the underbrush, and Maeve stumbled and almost fell as she tried to keep up. “Wait for me.” In her heart she knew the vixen was the Goddess and that she would lead her to her mother, lead her home.

Suddenly the trees opened up on a vast green plain. She recognized this place. In her first vision, she had stood on the cliffs above it and seen it white with snow. She had seen the little village in the distance and a woman and child being chased by a pack of wolves. But now the scene was warm and peaceful, a lush green field covered with wildflowers that nodded in the wind. The vixen had stopped in the shadows of the forest and sat back on her haunches, waiting.

“What is this place?” Maeve asked her. “Why have you brought me here?”

Suddenly she heard a man’s voice calling her name like an echo on the wind. Turning, she could just make out a figure on the far side of the field. It was the Viking, Asmund, and he was looking for her. Tears stung her eyes, and her fists clenched with rage. But something in his voice touched her, angry as she was. “I’m sorry,” she heard him calling. “Please come back.”

The vixen stood up and turned back toward the forest. “Wait,” Maeve said. The Goddess paused and looked back at her, one foot poised. The choice being offered was clear. She could go back into the forest and follow the vixen to her realm. She would see her mother again and Vivian; she would grow in power and prepare for rebirth. Or she could go to Asmund.

“Why do I have to decide? You’re the Goddess; show me what I must do.” One the wind she heard Asmund calling again and a sigh like a woman’s laughter. But the vixen didn’t move.

She turned away from the forest shadows and ran out into the light.

******

Asmund had dozed off, and he woke when he felt Maeve stir in his arms. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. Her cheeks and lips were pink again, and her eyes were clear. “Maeve?” He cradled her cheek in his hand and bent as if to kiss her.

“No.” She pushed his hand away.

“All right.” If she would live, he could wait. He settled her back to the pallet beside him. “Just rest then.” She closed her eyes and slept.

 

 

**********

 

 

Days later, Maeve stood at the bow of the cargo ship as it navigated between sharp, icy cliffs. In front of them, the dragon’s head carved into the prow of Asmund’s longship sliced through the swells, a sleek, black wyrm darting over the cold, green sea. Even at this distance, she could hear the Vikings singing and laughing as they rowed, and the sailors on the cargo ship were the same. They were almost home.

Luna’s two sons raced around her, chasing one another around the deck, and one of the Vikings laughed as he called to them to be careful. These men had treated their captives well, she had to admit, much better than she had expected. Some of the women of her village were already forming attachments, young ones and widows who hadn’t had any lovers to lose in the raid. In time she had no doubt that the people of the Goddess would be absorbed into this new tribe, and that was as it should be. If the Goddess had not willed it so, Asmund would not have saved them. But cold the Goddess even see them in this freezing, far-off place?

Luna brought a cloak and wrapped it around Maeve’s shoulders. “The men say we are almost there,” she said. “They already sing praises to their gods for delivering them safely.”

“They are brave men,” Maeve said. “Can you imagine having the courage to set sail across all that empty water with nothing but the stars and a needle in a bucket to guide you?”

Luna laughed. “I can’t imagine doing anything men do, my queen.”

“Don’t call me that,” Maeve said.

“If not you, then who?” Luna said.

“No one. You have a king now. We all do—Asmund’s father.” She could see the Viking’s silhouette in the blinding white sunlight. He was standing at the rudder of the longship, steering their course, fearless and certain. “He will do what he likes with us.”

“You saved your people, Lady Maeve,” Luna said. “If Prince Asmund didn’t care for you, he would have let the other dog have us, and we would all be dead. That was the old queen’s legacy.”

“Mind your tongue,” Maeve said. “She was my mother.”

“Aye, and she was a fool.” She put a hand to Maeve’s cheek, making tears come to her eyes. “Sing for us, my lady,” she said. “Remember us to the Goddess.”

Maeve had abandoned her prayers back in Britain, her prayers and her life and her hope. But she had changed her mind about living. And if she lived, she belonged to the Goddess.

“Sing with me.” She reached toward all the women on the deck, gathering them into a circle. They were so few compared to the tribe they had been, her heart ached to see it, but they would be enough. “We will sing a requiem for our dead,” she said. “And a prayer of thanks for this new homecoming.”

*****

On the longship, Asmund heard Maeve’s voice singing just as he had so many times back on the beach in Britain. He had grown to love the sound of it. But this song was so sad, he felt a lump rise in his throat. The other women raised their own voices to join hers, and even on the longship, all his men went quiet.

“Odin save us, brother,” Hagen said, smiling but turning pale. “What magic have we brought home?”