10 Great Romances from 31 Days of Oscar

All I want to do these days is stay home and watch Turner Classic Movies – it’s 31 Days of Oscar month! As you could probably guess even if I didn’t talk about it all the time, I am an absolute sucker for old movies. And looking over this year’s schedule, I’m realizing just how much influence and inspiration I’ve taken from them in writing my own versions of romance.

The whole month is stuffed with great films (and not so great films that were overrated in their day), but I can draw a straight line from any of these to my own ideas about relationships and the stories I’ve written about them. (All aired or will air on TCM at some point in March 2022; some are streaming on HBOMax.)

Cabaret (1972): I saw this the first time on pay cable in the middle of the night when I was about 12 years old, and if you hold a gun to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite movie of all time, I might very well say this one. It is a classic example of a big ideas, big concept epic that is held together and made real by the love story at its center, scary and swooney and sad. It was the first romantic story I ever really engaged that wasn’t about two cis straight people; it introduced me to ideas like the potential beauty of decadence in squalor and art as the whole universe and sex as both a game and an expression of the soul. And Liza Minelli literally sings her heart out. I recently introduced my teen-age niece (a goth theater kid after my own heart in every way) to it, and she fell completely in love just like I did. Streaming on HBOMax

Dr. Zhivago (1965): My grandmother, who I adored, absolutely adored this movie, and the first time it came on network TV, we all gathered at her house to watch it. And Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin were all impossibly beautiful and tragic and yearning, and I got completely caught up in the story. But later, thinking about it, I realized that as a love interest Yuri Zhivago was not, to use the time-honored Southern expression, worth the dynamite it would take to blow him up. Weak and indecisive, he half-heartedly tries to do the right thing with no conviction and ends up making everything worse for everybody every single time. He was my first, “he’s pretty but damn” romantic hero, and I make a concentrated effort to never write a guy like him myself. Streaming on HBOMax

The Philadelphia Story (1940): One of the greatest screwball comedies of all time and a major inspiration for my own Stella Hart stories. I adore almost every little thing about this movie about a prideful but hilarious society beauty and the poor saps who just can’t help falling in love with her. Katherine Hepburn’s persona is on perfect display here and used to its best possible effect, and neither Cary Grant nor Jimmy Stewart was ever sexier. I watch it every single time it comes on and always will. Streaming on HBOMax

Sense and Sensibility (1995): If you’re only going to allow one Jane Austen movie adaptation into your life, skip the many excellent versions of Pride and Prejudice and pick this one. Alan Rickman gets to break out his perfect yearning lover face in a role where he actually survives the story AND washes his hair; Hugh Grant is the best version of his floppy-haired English heartthrob self, and Kate Winslet and Greg Wise both look good enough to eat. And when Emma Thompson as Eleanor breaks down in happy sobs at the end, she is every smart, sensible woman who ever finally got exactly what her foolish heart has always wanted, and she is glorious. Showing March 13 at 8:00 p.m.; streaming on HBOMax

Wuthering Heights (1939): This is not my favorite movie adaptation of the gothic classic; that would be the version from 1992 with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. That one hews much closer to the original story, and Fiennes and Binoche play Heathcliff and Cathy much more as written than Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon do in this film. But this is the one that turns a very twisted and complicated psychological novel into a swoon-worthy tragic romance. It omits the entire second volume of Bronte’s original, so the audience never sees just what a sadistic, controlling piece of crap Heathcliff actually becomes. And in Oberon’s portrayal, Cathy becomes less his match in cruelty and more the innocently careless seductress so popular in romances of the day (think Scarlett O’Hara or Bette Davis’s character in Jezebel–the Depression Era version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). But Olivier never looked more beautiful or acted more romantic on screen. When he plunges out into the storm in pursuit of the ghost of his beloved, my heart breaks every time. Showing March 14 at 2:30 p.m.

Camelot (1967): Beautiful Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere can’t sing a lick, and Guinevere as a character is kind of a twerp. Handsome Franco Nero’s Lancelot struck me as bombastic and over the top and anything but romantically appealing even the first time I saw this when I was about nine. But Richard Harris as Arthur is pure delight–that Guinevere breaks his heart to be with Lancelot just proves what a nincompoop she is. And this movie was my gateway drug not just to the Matter of Britain but all medieval fantasy, aka the absolute best thing ever. If I hadn’t sat up half the night watching this on TV in my grandmother’s living room with my Aunt Kathy all those years ago, I might have missed out on Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and about half of my own fiction catalog. Showing March 18 at 1:30 a.m.; streaming on HBOMax

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): This not-quite-a-Monty-Python comedy makes me laugh until tears run down my face every time I see it. I would love it even if it had no romantic subplot to speak of. But the love connection between Jamie Lee Curtis’s sexy jewel thief Wanda and John Cleese’s repressed barrister Archie Leach is one of my all time favorites in any movie ever. Like every femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs in a towel and an anklet, Wanda goes after Archie boobs hiked and guns blazing in the beginning to take something he has. Her pretending to be smitten with him starts out as one of the jokes. Why would a girl like Wanda ever go for a guy like Archie? (His name is a clue, though–Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.) But of course the great twist is, she falls for him for real. She chooses him over the prettier but abysmally stupid Otto (played by a very pretty Kevin Kline) not just because Archie really can speak Italian and Russian but because he’s smart and kind and sees her even when she’s faking. Repressed or not, he tells her with absolute sincerity and no hesitation that she is “the sexiest girl [he has] ever seen.” Who could resist that? Showing March 20 at 3:00 a.m.

The Gay Divorcee (1934): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and another major inspiration for Stella Hart. It’s all snappy dialogue and impossible settings and frothy costumes on Ginger Rogers that swirl like seafoam when she dances and a plot that even if you manage to follow it makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s a sanitized version of a much more sophisticated musical play, The Gay Divorce, with songs by Cole Porter. Astaire and Rogers would play a much more coherent version of a slightly naughty mistaken identity plot the next year in Top Hat, also a favorite. But this is the one with that heavenly dance number set to Porter’s “Night and Day.” Showing March 22 at 12:15 a.m.

Casablanca (1942): If you don’t know why this one made the list, I can’t help you. And if you’ve never actually seen it before, I’m jealous. Play it, Sam. Showing March 26 at 11:00 a.m.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Far and away the most heartbreaking story on this list. And this list has Cabaret, Wuthering Heights AND Dr. Zhivago. Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, and Uma Thurman are all insanely good, and Keanu Reeves is very, very beautiful to look at. The story is sexy and chilling and impossibly sad, and Malkovich makes a perfect dark romantic anti-hero. (Yes, John Malkovich! I know, right?) The cruellest kiss off ever uttered is apparently, “It is beyond my control.” And yeah, Cruel Intentions is based on the same book–if you like that, please watch this. And bring a tissue. Showing March 27 at 2:00 a.m., streaming on HBOMax.

Black Romance Matters

I have a book of my own coming out this week, and trust me, I’ll be telling you all about it. But watching the news and talking to my friends and reading the internet this week, I feel like it’s more important to shine my little spotlight on books from some of the amazing Black women writing romance. I know all four of these women as fellow authors, and I’m lucky enough to call a couple of them friends. But in every case, their art gives me joy as a reader and makes my own genre and my own writing better. Every one of them is irreplaceable, and I cherish every word they write. So to borrow the catchphrase of my own publisher, click the covers and buy their shit!

perciDahlia Rose – Perci Rules the World (The Perci Podcast Series Book 1)

By day Percelle Meadows works at the Municipal Archives of New York City. From blueprints to vital statistics, if you need it, she can find it. By night, Perci takes on her persona of social jetsetter and all of her adventures are gobbled up voraciously by her fans. Being a forty something (hey age is just a number!), her life is just beginning all over again. Lovers, champagne and dancing the night away, it was so different than how she was raised, who she was taught to be.

ruthless prideNaima Simone – Ruthless Pride (Dynasties: Seven Sins Book 1)

Millionaire CEO Joshua Lowell earned his icy reserve and arrogant pride through painful experience. He refuses to allow gorgeous but determined reporter Sophie Armstrong to dredge up his family’s dark past—or circulate rumors of his secret child. But Joshua’s fierce pride is at war with his heated desire for Sophie, the only woman who could ruin him…or save him from himself.

 

firebreatherRaelynn Blue – Firebreather

Angela Brown came to Alaska to study dragons, not fall in love with one. But when Ryuu Sho Jin, a brilliant and beautiful dragon shifter, falls into a life-threatening fever, she realizes how much this clan and this dragon have come to mean to her. She risks her life and binds herself to Ryuu as his lifelong mate. In his arms, she discovers passion and terror like she has never known before, and feelings for this man she never realized she could have. [Full disclosure: This particular book was published by Falstaff Crush.]

complicatedNikki Prince – It’s Complicated (Undeniable Book 1)

Ashton Locke has had a thing for Keiko Jarrett since college. So when she proposes adding friends with benefits to the mix, he’s intrigued, but wary. Sure, he’s always wanted her, and is definitely not ready to settle down with anyone, but what happens if one of them crosses the line?

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.

North, South, East, West, and the Romance Writers of America

In 1985 when the miniseries North and South first aired on TV, my mother worked for a lady named Miss Rose Cauthen. North and South, for those previously spared by youth or ignorance, was based on a series of historical novels by John Jakes about two wealthy and heroic white guys who meet at West Point about a decade before the Civil War and become friends for life. And of course the big hook is, one is from the North and one is from the South—South Carolina, to be specific. It’s the vehicle that unleashed the raw sexual power of Patrick Swayze in a pair of tight britches on an unsuspecting world. Mama, my sisters, and I watched it avidly. All the ladies in Mama’s office watched and discussed it daily with breathless enthusiasm. Miss Rose herself declared it to be the best thing she’d seen on TV in an age.

Then came the Great Unpleasantness. The North guy’s abolitionist sister (played by Kirstie Alley) not only helped one of Swayze’s slaves escape the plantation, she had sex with him in the barn on his way out. A Black man and a white woman engaged in consensual sexual relations (or at least 10 full seconds of foreplay on the way to sexual relations) right there on the TV screen. I can only imagine the noises that came out of Miss Rose and her sister, Miss Louise, as this horror unfolded before them. But the next day, Miss Rose declared that she had turned off her television set. She informed her staff that North and South was filth of the worst possible kind, and she would not allow it to be discussed in her office. She even attempted to forbid the rest of them to watch. And when Mama told her she declined to be so censored in her own home, both Miss Rose and Miss Louise made it plain that henceforth they would think less of her as a lady. Bear in mind, please, that these genteel flowers had already absorbed the shock of several extended sequences of half-nekkid Swayze making soft focus whoopie with another man’s half-nekkid wife in scenes hot enough that Mama made Alexandra Christian cover her eyes. But a brief interlude between a single consenting white woman and a single consenting Black man who subsequently married was more than they could bear. And the idea that any other “nice” woman could bear it just fine was more than they could imagine.

I’ve found myself remembering Miss Rose a lot lately as I’ve been watching the RWA implode. It’s a long, complicated, very much on-going kerfuffle, but for the purposes of my point, here are the highlights. (For a more detailed analysis, start here.) In recent years, as romance as a literary genre expands beyond the f*ck fantasies of white ladies of a certain age both in fact and in perception, the Romance Writers of America keeps getting itself in trouble. The actual membership is becoming more diverse, but the ruling spirit of the organization keeps proving over and over again that it just kind of is not. One of the most vocal and effective critics of institutional racism in the RWA and romance as a genre is bestselling romance author Courtney Milan, who is Chinese-American. Back in August 2019, no doubt in response to yet another version of “honestly, Courtney, I don’t see the problem,” Milan called out another writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, for her portrayal of Asian characters in a book from her backlist. On Twitter, she called the book a “racist mess” and quoted passages to prove her point.

Davis and the RWA attempted to turn off Milan and forbid the rest of us to watch her any more.

Specifically, Davis made a formal complaint to the RWA, saying Milan had cyber-bullied her and cost her a contract. RWA formed a secret squirrel special ethics committee to investigate because, inconveniently, the regular ethics committee at RWA that everybody knew about was chaired by Milan herself. The secret squirrels investigated and voted in secret to suspend Milan’s RWA membership for a year and ban her from holding any office within the organization for life.

And bless their sweet hearts, I swear I think they thought that would be the end of it. When one of Milan’s friends went public with the news, the RWA seemed to be shocked—shocked, I tell you!—to discover that not only would Milan not just go away and hush because they told her to, a big, loud swath of their membership was just as horrified by their attempt to silence her as she was and just as willing to say so.

It’s quite the circus. Since the initial blowup, a lot of complicated issues going back decades have come out. There’s even dispute now as to whose idea it was to spank Milan in the first place. Davis now says she only filed her complaint because the leadership at RWA told her she had to, that she never intended them to punish Milan. Meanwhile, the RWA leadership insists that once Davis filed her complaint, they had no choice but to act.

I call bullshit on both sides of that argument, but whatever. Y’all know me well enough by now to know I #standwithCourtney. I recently recorded a video statement as acquiring editor for Falstaff Crush calling out RWA and supporting diversity in romance in the strongest possible terms—love is love, y’all. That should be up on the Falstaff Books YouTube channel soon if it isn’t already.

But the actions of Davis and the RWA leadership are not mysterious to me. I know those people. As we say here in the Beautiful South, I’ve been knowing them all my life. They’re Miss Rose. Behind all the boilerplate and pearl clutching, all their assertion and defense comes down to this. “I am a nice lady. All my friends (all of whom think like me or don’t dare or care enough to tell me otherwise) tell me all the time what a nice lady I am. Nice ladies are not racists. Therefore, I cannot be a racist. My views on and portrayals of people not like me cannot be racist but are in fact the truth—or at least a perfectly acceptable fantasy that doesn’t hurt a soul. Because I don’t hurt people. I’m nice.”

Sorry, Miss Rose, but you’re not.

The people who think this way are so dependent on this view of themselves they see anything that threatens it as an unforgiveable attack. Out of fear or laziness or some combination of the two, they adamantly refuse to consider for even one moment that their critics might have a point. To question their own attitudes.

To check their privilege.

And until RWA can do that, it’s not going to get any better.

Romance as a genre is so much more than it’s perceived to be. And lord knows, with book stuffers and click farms and copyright crazies, we need a professional organization to defend us now more than we ever have before. But a Miss Rose RWA will never be qualified to do it.

Hot Guys in Helmets

adam driver rolling stone

The cover of this week’s Rolling Stone

So because we’re total pop culture junkies and apparently sheep, the hubs and I have already subscribed to Disney +, and we’re watching The Mandalorian. And yes, we love it, and yes “Baby Yoda” is the cutest darned thing ever, and yes I think it’s a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out. But as a romance novelist, I have another reason for liking it that has absolutely nothing to do with any reasonable consideration of story or production.

The Mandalorian is really hot.

Which is crazy, right? I mean, we’ve never seen his face. If his vows to his compatriots are to be believed, we aren’t ever GOING to see his face. Setting aside that this story has no room for any kind of romantic subplot and that sexuality is almost certainly a non-issue in the first place, why should a guy in full armor with his face completely covered make me want to start pricing helmets as a Christmas present for my husband? Consideration of this burning question made me start thinking about all the masked and helmeted heroes that have given me the vapors over the years. Some of them, like the Mandalorian, stay masked all the time. Others use the big reveal as a signpost to character or purpose; with faces bared, they become someone else. But in every instance, the mystery of the mask adds hugely to their love monkey appeal, whether they mean it to or not.

1 – The Other Star Wars Guy: Unlike my little sister, Alexandra Christian, I’m not really a Kylo Ren fangirl. He’s a little too damaged, a little too controlling, a little too brat-prince batshit crazy to work as an object of my vicarious desire. But I must admit, that big moment in The Force Awakens when Baby Vader takes off his mask and reveals the soulful eyes and misshapen beauty of Adam Driver hit me right where it was meant to. That’s the moment for Rey and for the audience when we start hoping he can be better. And how well his story works for us going forward depends very much on how effective that reveal continues to be every time he does it–you’ll notice that by the end of The Last Jedi, he’s barely ever wearing his mask at all. If we’d never seen him in the mask, if we didn’t have that contrast, he would be stripped of a whole lot of his seductive power. I’ll be very curious to see how the mask as fetish is played out in The Rise of Skywalker.

2 – The Stig: I had never heard of the TV show Top Gear until I married my husband. I don’t even drive. And yes, the lead host of the show’s heyday, Jeremy Clarkson, was an absolute horror show of white male privilege; his own co-hosts referred to him as “the orangutan.” But in every episode, their “tame racing driver,” The Stig (a joke about how all the best racing drivers seem to be Scandinavians named Stig) would test drive some incredibly exotic and impractical dream car around the track and set a best possible lap time. He never appeared without his helmet; the mystery of his identity was a running gag throughout the run of the show; they sold promotional teeshirts that read “I Am the Stig.” When the real live guy in the helmet, Ben Collins, finally outed himself in a book, he was fired from the show and pilloried forevermore by the rest of the presenters. Collins is a pretty nice-looking guy. But The Stig was Hot As F*ck. He never showed his face; he never even spoke. But he drove, better and faster and harder than any other human on the planet, all with perfect calm, perfect cool, perfect efficiency. And I think that was what did it for me, just watching this man perform at the absolute top of the game he had chosen without ever breaking a sweat. If I had seen his facial expressions changing, heard him talking about engines or describing the thrill, I don’t think I would have been nearly as affected. The mystery of the man inside this magnificent machine was what flipped my switch completely, and I doubt very much I was alone.

3 – The Dashing Rogues: These are the kind of guys Errol Flynn used to play, guys like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Antonio Banderas as Zorro and, more particularly, Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Westley in The Princess Bride. (I know, I know, the Dread Pirate Roberts was his secret identity; Westley was his real name.) Elwes was playing the Platonic ideal of this archetype for laughs, but it worked as more than just a joke because he looked and sounded amaaaaaaazing doing it. And he works the transformation; he fully embraces the power of the mask. When he leaves as the Farm Boy, he’s serious, determined, and blandly besotted–the male version of his beloved Buttercup. But when he returns in that black mask with that ridiculous little mustache, he’s snarky Superman. It isn’t just that he can out-fence, out-fight, and out-wit all comers. It’s that he takes such obvious delight in his powers. Hiding his identity frees him to embrace his inner bad guy even as he saves the girl. And it’s very, very sexy.

4 – The Superheroes: Some superheroes take the idea of a dual identity way beyond Clark Kent’s glasses, guys like Batman and Ironman and my favorite lover of the bunch, Deadpool. Unlike Ironman and Batman, whose disguises are weapons in themselves, Deadpool is hiding a deformity. The mask is his beauty look; underneath he’s the monster. It’s a very Byronic, Phantom of the Opera-kind of character, except that he’s also a total smartass. He hides from his beloved because he fears her rejection, and when he takes off the mask, it’s funny (I dearly love the Hugh Jackman mask gag), but it’s hugely romantic, too, the ultimate display of vulnerability. Batman scores points every time he shows his true face to one of his many love interests; Ironman hides from no one, but the moment Pepper discovers the suit is a big step in their relationship. But for me, Deadpool takes the prize.

5 – My Favorite: Anybody who knows me at all knows I dearly adore me some Russell Crowe. I don’t care how old or fat he gets or what kind of role he might be playing, just watching him makes my heart go pitty-pat. And I can tell you exactly the moment that unbreakable bond was forged:

Holy moley mooley moo. When Gladiator came out, my gal pals and I spent much time and breath exclaiming over that helmet. My story, “The Dragon,” in Eat the Peach, functions quite nicely as Maximus fan fiction, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But why does that moment make such a difference? What is the deal with the helmet?

When Max puts on the helmet, it’s to hide his face from the Emperor and kick ass. He proves himself a killing machine without equal and a leader of men. Max in the helmet is the ultimate war machine in the same way Deadpool is the ultimate assassin and Stig is the ultimate driver. But when he takes it off, he reveals his fearsome broken soul. He is “the father of a murdered son; the husband of a murdered wife.” The helmet doesn’t just function practically as armor; it functions as a buffer between his anguish and the world. When he takes it off and reveals that anguish … well, all I can say is, it works a treat for me.

And I think the Mandalorian is a version of the same thing. We don’t see his face, but we do see his behavior. We see him fight and win; we see him fight and lose and keep trying. And we see him with The Child–his body language, his decisions. We see the tenderness behind the warrior. And because of the helmet, we can project onto that any face we choose. So yeah, not a romantic story. But a very romantic hero all the same.

 

 

 

 

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!!!

 

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.

Because I need distraction, and maybe you do, too.

guinevere's revenge coverThis has been an awful week, and now that I’ve expressed my outrage until I’m sick of the sound of my own voice, I’m looking around for things to make me forget reality entirely. I wrote my latest, Guinevere’s Revenge, in exactly that spirit. It’s an extremely light-hearted romantic mystery–Agatha Christie plus P.G. Wodehouse minus the racism.

The heroine, Stella Hart, is an American silent movie actress whose divorced socialite mother is married to an English lord. Stella is visiting the manor house for a shooting party and ends up solving a murder with the help of George Barrington, her stepfather’s favorite nephew. The story was inspired by screwball romances with lots of snappy banter like Bringing Up Baby and the kind of comforting mysteries where the bad are punished and the good go on in their goodness and all ends up right with the world. And right now, I really want to believe in that world, and I’m thinking maybe the rest of you might, too. Here’s an excerpt to show you what I mean:

****

“Thanks, Hennessey,” she said, taking the phone. “Hello? This is Stella Hart.”

“Finally,” a voice that was all too familiar boomed over the line. “You okay, dollface? It sounds like they’ve got you locked in an ivory tower. I’ve been trying to reach you all night!”

She slammed the phone down once, then three more times as if to break the connection for all eternity. George came out into the hall as she was putting the receiver down on the table, leaving it off the hook.

“Okay, Mugsy, where’d you hide the loot?” he teased.

“What?” She was too panicked to understand the joke.

“You’re behaving like a cat burglar who double-crossed her partners and absconded with the jewels.” He took her hand. “The jig’s up, kiddo.” For once his crooked smile made her want to cry. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“You’re closer than you think.” She had promised herself and poor Bertie that she wouldn’t breathe a word of this to anyone in England, but she had no choice. “You know all that money Lord Carraway thinks movie people make? It’s not quite so.”

“Darling, if you need money—”

“No, no, not me,” she said, smiling as she squeezed his hand. “Bertie’s last picture cost the lost treasures of Egypt to make. And he wasn’t as discerning as he might have been in how he got it. He borrowed money from what he called ‘a consortium of interested businessmen’ in New York to finish it, promising to pay them back when the picture was released.”

“What’s all this got to do with you?” George asked, frowning.

“The picture is a big success, but Bertie paid all the people who worked on it first,” she said. “Then he sort of . . . well, he spent a bundle on a leading man and a director for his next project.”

“Oh good lord . . .”

“He’ll definitely pay them back; he always does. But he’s taking a little longer than they were expecting, particularly with the picture doing so well.”

“Longer than he promised, you mean.”

“Yes, that.” She was in no fit state to explain away her stepfather’s faults the way she usually would have, not to George. She could never lie to George. “The leader of this . . .”

“Consortium?”

“Yes. He sent his son, Anthony, to Los Angeles to speak to Bertie about it, and Bertie asked me to . . . well . . . to distract him.”

“He did not!”

“Nothing awful!” she said, drawing him further from the dining room before he put the whole house in an uproar. “I just happened to run into the two of them at the Coconut Grove, and Bertie introduced us. I danced with Tony once or twice, and we drank some champagne. It was all perfectly innocent, really.” She hated the way George was looking at her, so sympathetic and horrified all at the same time. “But Tony apparently made more of it than I realized. He’s gotten sort of attached.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Attached?”

“He’s driving me crazy,” she confessed. “He sends me presents; he calls me night and day. The day I finally threw in the towel and ran, he had hired an entire string quartet to come to the set where I was working and play ‘Come to Me, My Melancholy Baby’ until I agreed to go out with him again.”

George laughed, the swine. “Sounds like the poor devil’s got it bad, sausage,” he said. “You should let him off the hook. Just tell him you’re not interested.”

“I can’t,” she said. “If I brush him off, he’ll remember about the money, and he might break poor Bertie’s knees or something.”

“Well, you can’t continue scurrying around the globe this way,” he said. “It’s round; you’ll eventually catch him up.” As he said this, she watched with horror as Hennessey came out, realized the phone was off the hook, and picked up the receiver.

“Hennessey, no!” she cried as he replaced it. Within mere seconds, it rang.

“Shush,” George said, pushing her gently aside to answer it. “Barrington Hall. George Barrington speaking.” She could hear Tony’s booming baritone, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. “Yes, Mr. Bartinelli, I’ve just been hearing all about you from our little Stella.” She grabbed his arm and gazed up at him with pleading eyes. “She tells me you’re quite a chap, and she’s quite taken with you.” He put his hand over hers and patted, giving her a nod that said he’d take care of everything. “Problem is, she’s my fiancée.”

“George!” she gasped.

“Yes, I knew it would be something of a shock,” George said, putting his hand over her mouth. “That scamp—I should have known better than to let her loose in California without me.” She heard Tony say something even more loudly than usual. “Yes, a good spanking is probably exactly what she needs. But what can I do, Mr. Bartinelli? I adore her.” A short pause. “Yes, I thought you’d understand.” Another pause. “Yes, it’s been in the works for years. Her stepfather is my uncle, you see.” Pause. “No, not that one—the other one, Lord Barrington.” Pause. “Too bad, yes. That would solve a great many problems, wouldn’t it?” Longer pause, and George frowned. “Now see here, Mr. Bartinelli, I hardly think . . .” Then he laughed. “Yes, I suppose I do understand. I’m just glad you’re taking it so well. She wasn’t too terribly naughty, was she? . . . Oh good, good, glad to hear it . . . No, no, not at all . . . That sounds fine. Good-bye.”

He hung up the phone. “I can’t believe it,” Stella said. “You darling madman . . . I can’t believe you told him we were engaged.”

“Inspiration of the desperate man and all that.” He looked a little pale. “And he believed it, by the way. Said it made perfect sense.”

“Well, what else could he say?” She felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “George, I swear I could kiss you.”

“Good,” he said, his voice rather hollow. “You’ll need the practice.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“You’ll have to make a good show of it, sausage,” he answered with a sickly grin. “He’s on his way here.”

“What?”

“He wants to be certain you’re happy with our engagement.”

“Oh for pity’s sake!”

“He’s only looking out for you, sausage. I think he really is quite smitten.”

“That’s very sweet, but dear heavens!” Could things get any worse? “Did you tell him we would just wait around here until his boat arrives?”

“Oh, his boat arrived this morning, half an hour after yours did.” She clutched his arm, too shocked to speak. “He’s at the post office,” he said. “He’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“George, really,” Mavis said, coming out of the dining room. “This is intolerable. They’re about to serve dessert.” She looked back and forth between George and Stella, the two of them sort of clutching one another like orphans in a storm. “What the devil is going on?”

“Mavis, darling, thank heavens you’re here,” George said, letting go of Stella to go to her. “We’re going to have to play a little game.”

****

Wanna know how it comes out? Get your copy from Amazon here.