You'll Have Absolutely No Problem Falling In Love With "The Trouble With Misbehaving"

The Trouble With Misbehaving Title:  The Trouble With Misbehaving
Author:  Victoria Hanlen
Review Format:  eARC
Length:  NA
Publisher:  Harper Collins/Carina UK
Rating:  5 Stars

Love, Betrayal and Redemption
Calista ‘CC’ Collins is used to being the talk of the town. With her scandalous past she’s learnt the hard way that a woman needs to be strong to get what she wants in a man’s world. And what she wants is the infamous Captain Beauford Tollier—roguish son of an earl, notorious blockade-runner and all-round knave of the seas.
However, Captain Beau is not one to be cajoled—he is done with the dangerous sea life and ready to follow the life of the straight and narrow. But with many powerful forces circling around him, Beau doesn’t stand a chance…
PRAISE FOR THE TROUBLE WITH MISBEHAVING ‘This story has romance, action, bad and good men, surprises, and a lot more.’ – Cathy Geha (NetGalley)
‘this one didn't disappoint’ – Avephoenix (Goodreads)
‘I’ve read hundreds of historical romances, yet rarely encounter such a wily heroine–one who was not only loyal and brave, but cunning and able to turn her own scandal into fortune…’ – Jamie Beck (Goodreads)
‘This story has adventure and will take you along for a wonderful ride if you let it.’ – Jennifer Perkins (Goodreads)



excerpt
“Since you burned my letters we still have much to discuss.”
He squared his shoulders. “I think not. Our brief association is at an end. I do not wish to be a part of your mad games. After the night before last—”
“After the night before last?”
“It seems best to allow you your distance.”
He heard a quick intake of breath and a rustle of silk. Her voice seemed to rise in pitch, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what you almost did with crazy ol’ Miss Collins. But then you have lots of secrets, do you not, Captain Tollier? What’s one more?”
“I don’t know what you mean, nor do I care.” He started walking again.
“Looking at all these…lovely portraits, I can see why people whisper you’re the family’s cuckoo.”
Lurching around, he clenched his fists in an effort to control his temper. Not only did the insult shock, it cut into one of his earliest, deepest insecurities. He lowered his voice to a dangerous calm. “You are fortunate to be a woman, madam. Were you a man, such an insult might force me to call you out.”
She stood and gave him a look so sultry it almost begged him to teach her lessons of a different sort.
“Ah yes, call me out. And what should I call you?”
He turned to leave, hoping to prevent saying or doing something he’d regret. Before he’d taken two steps, C.C. said in a voice full of authority, “Mr. Wainwright. Perhaps Captain Scott? Or would it be Cornelius Dolan?”
The hairs on his neck stood straight out.

My Thoughts
Calista CC Collins may be a disgraced American heiress, a touch mad, a few years past what the English aristos may consider her "prime".  But as Captain Beauford Tollier, and every reader who dares to venture into the story to be found here shall soon discover.  This brilliant, beautiful, magnetic, and multifaceted woman is so much more than anyone could ever fathom.

Her counterpart in this adventure, and this is a true adventure from the word GO.  One Captain Beauford Tollier, is the seafaring third son of a flourishing Earldom.  A veteran of the English Navy, a PTSD sufferer, a man of many names and bounties, and a famous blockade runner.
Lastly, Beauford Tollier could be the one man able to match the fire that blazes inside the indomitable  Miss Collins, with one of his own.  If he can survive her and more to the point, her request...that is.

It is very clear from their first clandestine meeting in the darkness of a London pleasure garden; evil plotting men on their trail.  There are to be no firsts or seconds here.  As least not in terms of who is to bring the most drama to this story.
Instead, what we have here is a dance.  A dance where the leading man and his lady take turns guiding, dipping, and twirling.  First one and then the other.  Sharing the spotlight, each shinning in his or her own light both separately and together.

While it is true that the romance here takes a backseat to the action for most of the read.  Said action goes a long way in assuring that our lead couple is thrown together in situations which inspire...loyalty.  To say the least.
Whether it is a shared nemesis from both of their pasts, baddies with a grudge, the desperation of Calista's mission, her part in the War Of Northern Aggression, or so much more.  The circumstances in which these to find themselves build their relationship and this wonderful read.

There is so much going on in this read, that this reviewer dares not divulge too many details. Lest this critique become spoilery.
What can be said however, is that this book is for those who believe that there is no greater adventure than that of falling in love.

About Victoria
Victoria HanlenAward winning, historical romance author, VICTORIA HANLEN, has worked at a wide range of jobs, from fashion, to corporate business, to treading the boards of stage and professional opera. A lifelong writer, she once put her skills to use in PR and advertising. But her favorite form of writing is happily-ever-afters spiced with a dash of wit and a page-turning mystery. Victoria and her husband live in rural New England surrounded by a host of wildlife.

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Swerve Presents: The Billionaire's Virgin

Title:  The Billionaire's Virgin
Author:  Jackie Ashenden
Series:  Billionaire Fantasy #1
Format:  eBook
Publisher:  Swerve
Rating: 4.5 Stars


Book #1 in the intensely sexy Billionaire Fairytales by Jackie Ashenden where sometimes dark and tortured, sometimes bad boy and charming, but always dominant and sexy billionaires steal their heroines' breath away.

Xavier De Santis: Charming. Disgraced. Playboy.
The headlines are always shouting about the excesses of the so-called Prince Charming of the De Santis family. Problem is, Xavier is everything they say he is.
But now he’s gone too far, and he has has been ordered to clean up his image. Volunteering at a homeless shelter, Xavier sees a bright light amidst all the bleakness. An angel whose luminous face and tragic beauty call to him in ways he can’t explain.

Mia: Homeless. Vulnerable. Virgin.
When the shelter Mia calls home closes, she is left with nowhere to go. Nowhere except the luxurious, glorious palace of a home where Xavier De Santis has invited her to stay. This too-handsome billionaire is dark, dangerous…and also too good to be true. Surely Mia can indulge in her fantasies and escape the hardness of her daily life for just one night?

As one night turns into two, Mia knows that eventually, the magic will end. She can't keep the beautiful clothes. She can't keep the soft bed. And most of all, she can't keep the hard, handsome man who makes her crave his touch with every breath she takes.

Mia doesn't belong in his world. But as Xavier tempts his rags-to-riches heroine with exquisite pleasure and heady desire, Mia may have no choice but to surrender to him completely.


“No.” The word was breathless, her gaze meeting his, wide and dark. She looked surprised, as if she hadn’t been expecting to say it either.
“No?” He found he was almost holding his breath. “No, what?”
“I don’t…I can’t….” She stopped, looking away yet again, her mouth firming.
His patience was hanging by a thread. He was either going to have to get up and leave himself or… Well, shit, he didn’t know what else. Maybe go and get some relief in the shower or something.
“I don’t want to do anything you don’t want,” he said roughly. “So you’d better tell me what it is you do want, sweet thing.”
“I don’t know.” She sounded desperately unsure of herself. “I’ve…never done this before.”
“Sex you mean?” Because he had to get this straight for both of them.
“Yes.” She ducked her head, her shoulders hunching. Which had the unfortunate - well, unfortunate in terms of his restraint - effect of widening the gap in her shirt, giving him a glimpse of the soft curves of her tits and a flash of small, pink nipples.
He dug the fingers of his other hand into the arm of the couch, not giving a shit about the leather. “So…you’re a virgin?”
“I guess.”
“But you know how it all works, don’t you?” A perfectly valid question when he didn’t know what her old bitch of a grandmother had told her. If she’d told her anything at all.
Her head came up at that, annoyance glittering in her eyes. “Of course I do, I’m not stupid.”
He held her gaze. “I didn’t say you were. But I need to know you understand what I want.”
“I know. Believe me, I know. I see it all the time on the streets.”
Xavier let out a breath, a cold ripple of understanding washing over him. Jesus, and he could imagine what she’d seen. Prostitutes probably, and sexual assault. Sex as a transaction, as a show of power.  Nothing good. Nothing pleasurable.
“What I want from you,” he said carefully, “is not in any way what you’ve seen on the streets. Do you understand? It’s about pleasure. For both of us.”
Another flicker in her eyes. “Well, yeah. Of course.”
“So you know completely what I’m talking about.” It was obvious that she didn’t - at least it was obvious to him.
She looked abruptly down at her hands again. “I mean… the guys seem to like it.”
And the women didn’t, clearly.
Xavier shifted, turning fully to face her, because if she thought he was going to be one of those assholes on the street, who forced women, who wanted to show off their power by hurting them, or who were just after a fuck for their own selfish reasons, then she was mistaken.
Yes, he wanted her, and maybe by chasing her, it meant he was selfish too, but he didn’t want this only for himself. He wanted this for her as well. He wanted to make her feel good, wanted to cancel out whatever she’d seen on the streets of sex and show her what it was really like.
“Look at me, Mia.”
She shook her head.
He reached out again, gripping her chin firmly and lifting her head up so she had no choice but to meet his gaze. There was confusion in her eyes, and fear, all the same emotions that had been there when he’d kissed her the day before. And desire too. But did she even recognize that? Had she ever felt it before with anyone? If not, then no damn wonder she was so confused.
“The kind of sex I want is about pleasure. For me, sure. But mainly, I want to show you how good it can be for you.” Her skin was so soft against his fingers and he wanted to stroke her, but this was important so he kept still. “Do you want that? Would you like me to show you how good I can make you feel?”
She stared back at him and he could feel the tension in her jaw. “I kind of do,” she said huskily after a moment. “But…I’m afraid.”
“What of? Me?” He had to ask.
“No. It’s more that…I’ve never felt like this.”
“Never felt like what?”
Her throat moved as she swallowed. “Like…I want something.”
This time he couldn’t stop himself, stroking along her jaw with his thumb. “And what you do want, sweet thing?”
Her eyes were very dark. “I think…I want you.”
A deep sense of satisfaction moved through him, along with a sharp triumph that made him want to push her down and give her what she wanted immediately.
But no. He wasn’t going to do that. He needed to be slow, be careful.
Being with someone who was afraid of their own desires was new to him, and he had no experience to guide him. Normally he just made stuff up as he went along using trial and error, but with Mia… Jesus, he couldn’t afford an error.
Already this thing with her was far more complicated than anything else he’d had with other women, and that alone should have made him pull back. Complicated was definitely not what he was after.
Yet… She wanted him. And he was desperate to give her what she wanted.
He stared at her, keeping his grip on her chin firm. “Then you can have me.
Her eyes widened a little. “I… I don’t know w-what to do.”
“You don’t have to do anything. Just keep looking at me and let me do the work.” God, he couldn’t wait.  He would show her everything.
Reading out, he flicked open the second button on her shirt.
She tensed, but didn’t pull away, so he kept going, tugging open the fabric. The two halves of the cotton gaped and she shivered.
“Are you okay?” He watched her face carefully.
She gave a little nod, trembling as he reached for the third button and undid it, the fabric gaping even further, revealing those pretty, perfectly round tits. He let himself look as he pulled open the rest of the buttons, measuring the tension in her by the taut feel of her chin in his hand.
Christ. A flush had spread down over her chest, her nipples tight and hard. His cock ached, impatient as always, but somehow knowing that he was in charge of what happened here, that he was responsible for her pleasure made everything easier to deal with.
He was not going to fuck this one up.
He refused.
Sweeping his gaze back to her face, he made sure she was looking at him, as he reached out once more, resting his fingers once again on her throat, letting her get used to his touch. Before easing them down, sliding lightly over her chest, tracing little patterns on her skin.
Her breathing had changed, becoming faster, ragged sounding in the silence of the room. There was a darkness in her eyes, the same kind of darkness he’d seen in them when he’d kissed her, her pupils dilated, an almost glazed look in them.
“Does this feel good, Mia?”  He followed the curve of one breast with his fingertip. “It’s okay if it does. You’re allowed to have it. This is yours, it can’t be taken away.” His fingertip reached her nipple then circled around it a couple of times before gently brushing over it. “You know that, right?”
She shuddered, a sound escaping her throat, something small and glistening running down the side of her nose.
A tear.
“No,” she whispered hoarsely.

Copyright © 2017 by Jackie Ashenden and reprinted by permission of Swerve.


My Thoughts
Xavier De Santis is the youngest and most charming of the De Santis dynasty.  Spoiled, charming, and very entitled; Xavier is one known to push the limits of scandal, notoriety, of excess.  But now, as he finds himself on the cusp of the one more important to him than fun.  Xavier De Santis also finds himself part of a world far removed from the pampering and privilege that he has always enjoyed.  Bringing him face to face with the one woman capable of bringing the real man out of the playboy.

Mia is young, beautiful, tough, and...homeless.
She has had more than her share of losses in life.  So when the smiling and flirty stranger becomes a fixture of the soup kitchen that Mia depends on for what is often her only hot meal of the day.  She is more than a little wary.
But there seems to be something about the polished, dark-eyed, stranger that Mia just can't resist.  So when he offers her a much needed, but very temporary guestroom in his plush uptown apartment.  She is very careful not to say no.
But the question still remains...
By saying yes to the prince...could Mia also be saying yes to heartbreak?
Or do modern day fairy tales still offer even homeless princesses the chance at the truest of 'forever afters' .

This first book in the Billionaire Fairytales series, has everything that lovers of Contemporary Romance and those not quite ready to chuck their tiaras to the wind, are reading for.
With a cultural and economically diverse cast, the story is one that pricks the emotions at every turn.
Readers can't help wanting the best for Mia.  Although one can not help wondering at every turn if Xavier is truly that.

While it is clearly obvious that Xavier is haunted by very personal demons from his past.  Demons which whisper that he is not deserving of the loving heart on offer.  Demons that, if not exorcised could cost him everything.

The fact that Mia is a virgin works as a double edged sword for the plot of this book.  One one hand, it stands as a point of interest for their first sexual encounter.  One the other hand, the fact that she is a virgin gets lost amid the later emotional drama.  Thereby losing its unique brand of surprise factor over time.

This is a book that is perfect for those who love tales of pretty princesses and dashing but dense princes.

Reviewer's Note:  This book is the first in a companion series which may be read as standalone volumes or in its intended order.


About Jackie
Jackie Ashenden lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband, the inimitable Dr. Jax, and their two kids and two cats. When she’s not torturing alpha males and their stroppy heroines, she can be found drinking chocolate martinis, reading anything she can lay her hands on, posting random crap on her blog, or being forced to go mountain biking with her husband.

Jackie writes dark, sexy contemporary romance for St Martin’s Press, the titles Mine To Take, Make You Mine, and You Are Mine.

Find Jackie and The Billionaire's Virgin

Purchase Links

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Swerve Presents: Calista Fox's Seduction Book Blitz

33092000Title:  Seduction
Series:  Bayfront Billionaires 
Author:  Calista Fox
Format:  eBook
Publisher:  Swerve
Add To Goodreads
Rating:  5 Stars

100 Shades of Sin...

Delicious and hot, the seductive Bayfront Billionaires need one thing, and one thing only: the woman made for them, the one woman on earth who can complete their trio of passion and desire.

Lily Hart has taken a temporary position as a live-in butler for billionaire musicians Jackson Sterling and Lexington Alexander. She expected to be on call day and night. But what she did not plan for was that these two billionaires would be as handsome as sin and hell-bent on having her in their bed. Entirely skilled at the art of seduction, they make Lily burn for pleasure in ways she never knew she could.

Jax and Lex have been waiting for a muse, and when breathtaking, sensuous Lily arrives on their doorstep, they know she’s the woman to join them in the seductive web the three of them weave. But passion between three can end in flames, and Lily, Jax, and Lex must decide—is opening their hearts worth the risk?


Lily dressed in her uniform every morning, hair in a tight bun, and then served Jax and Lex brunch at their location of choice, either on one of the many patios or on the terrace off the music room. She went about her duties while they worked on the sheet music. Then she changed, let her hair down, and slipped into an evening gown for their late-night practice sessions.
She did exactly as they requested, attending to them when needed, but also sitting quietly, getting lost in the compositions and their creative process.
Occasionally the two men went out for dinner and drinks with friends, but she could see with each passing day that they were determined to improve upon what they’d already built. And Lily admired and respected their dedication and commitment to perfecting each arrangement.
It wasn’t just that she was lusting after both men—which was incredibly difficult to contain when she was still trying to be professional—she also genuinely adored Lex and Jax. Liked them more and more as she got to know them better. She was privy to their confidential discussions and she found their international travels enthralling, their views worldly and intelligent, and their philanthropic efforts generous.
Which only served to intensify her desire for them to the boiling point.
Though both gave her lingering glances and neither abstained from suggestive comments, even in front of each other, neither Lex nor Jax had made a physical move on her.
Until one afternoon, toward the end of her first month at the estate.
Lily was hanging Lex’s dry cleaning in his dressing room and returning his polished shoes to the shelves above one of the many racks. Or, at least, trying to. She really couldn’t reach that far even on tiptoe, but all the other spaces were spoken for.
“Here, let me,” he said from behind her, catching her by surprise. And making her pulse jump.
He took the shoes from her raised hand and set them where they belonged. In doing so, his body brushed hers, his chest pressing lightly to her back, his pelvis to her butt. Setting every nerve ending ablaze.
“Have Greta get you a stepladder,” Lex told her in his casual, sexy tone.
“Good idea.”
He lowered his arm, resting his hand at the dip of her waist. He leaned close and drew in a long breath. “You smell so damn good.”
Liquid fire rushed through her veins.
Lily turned to face him. “You’re finally touching me.”
“Yes.” His gorgeous blue eyes shimmered warmly. “And you don’t mind.” It wasn’t even a question.
“No.” Otherwise she would have conveniently sidestepped him. And being a gentleman, he would have let her.
Jax, however . . . She sensed that with his more aggressive nature, he’d cajole her into owning up to what she’d said to him on the terrace the night of the party—about her limited engagement at the mansion and the invitation that presented.
Lex was more of the coaxing kind. And she found that equally stimulating. So she gave him a soft smile.
His gaze dropped to her mouth. His expression morphed into a more contemplative one.
“You had valid points that night we discussed you being our muse and how we feel about you. Does it turn you on that we both want you, Lily?”
She swallowed hard. She’d practically been on pins and needles since she’d arrived at the estate. Following the evening when they’d expressed their interest in her . . . she’d all but waited with bated breath for one—or both—of them to corner her like this.
Yes, she’d needed to process. They’d obviously grasped that. But Christ. The fantasies had run rampant night after night. And being in a suite between Lex’s and Jax’s—though additional suites separated them on either side of hers—had her brimming with excitement. She was in such close proximity to them on a floor that offered immense privacy. It’d taken all the willpower she possessed not to leave her bed and climb into one of theirs.
But now here was Lex, pushing the envelope.
So Lily brazenly confessed, “It does turn me on. Even more than when I met you individually. Which is certainly saying something.”
“Good.” His lips whisked over hers in a feathery kiss that instantly tightened her nipples and ignited her insides. He murmured, “Because taking it slow with you has been much more difficult than we’d anticipated.”
“I don’t just jump into things,” she told him.
“We figured as much.”
Lily’s breathing was shallow, her heart racing.
Lex seemed to carefully catalog every reaction she had to him—every reaction he incited.
His grin was a bit cocky now that she was all but swooning under his electric gaze, feeling a little light-headed at the nearness of him. At his mouth, still so close to hers that all she had to do was lean in for another kiss and fall easily under his spell of seduction.
And he knew that was exactly what she was thinking.
He nipped playfully at the corner of her mouth, making her toes curl.
“You’re teasing me,” she whispered, her pussy throbbing at the way he toyed with her and the blatant need burning in his eyes. To claim her mouth? To claim her?
Lily didn’t actually think he’d take her right here and now, in his dressing room in the middle of the day.
But what an amazing fantasy to weave! Lex being so captivated by her that he couldn’t stand another second of the flirtation without giving in.
She’d suspected Jax would be the one to get caught up in the moment and have his way with her if she gave him the right signal. Lex, however, seemed to enjoy the little cat-and-mouse thrill of the chase. Either approach would work with her when it came to these two men. The thought of how varied each would be in tempting her, drawing her in, excited her even more.
She had a feeling everything about their foreplay and eventual conquering of her—if that was what they were both intent on—would provide the sort of double whammy that would leave her limp and boneless.
And thoroughly satisfied.
Prompting Lily to say, “I like the proposition you made. What you and Jax want from me.” She pulled in a long stream of air, looking for a little boost of courage, and then she daringly told Lex, “I’m more than intrigued by the way you two look at me. Not just when you’re taking in the sight of me in a different dress or watching me bend over to grab something from the butler’s pantry.” She crooked a brow at him, wondering if he’d deny it.
Of course, he didn’t. Modern-day scoundrel that he was, Lex’s sexy grin returned.
She should be forewarned by all the zings ricocheting through her body. Yet she wasn’t able to focus on any red flags this time. Especially the way Lex was currently devouring her with his hungry gaze.
Copyright © 2017 by Calista Fox and reprinted by permission of Swerve.


My Thoughts
Jackson Sterling and Lexington Alexander are the world class classical musical duo whose ethereal symphonic creations captivate hearts and minds the world over.But the two also share a tragic but sensual secret, that looms as a heartbreaking specter in both their lives and their creations.

Lily Hart is the best in her business and her business just happens to be service.  As a female butler to the best and brightest, she knows that she has what it takes to make her two newest clients feel right at home.
What she has no way of knowing however, is just how many "bonuses" her new position has to offer...
And what no one involved has any idea of is the life changing outcome that their shared passions will have on their art, their shared hearts, and their joined destinies.

Calista Fox's newest offering in the Bayfront Billionaires series.  Seduction offers readers a full and very scintillating tale of creativity, seduction, and love in a very readable novella format.
Though this book is flawless on every level.  The most fascinating aspect of the story told here is the fact that Lily, although employed as the "help" in the lives and household of Jax and Lex; is more than capable of holding her own among the elite of her world.  She is so at home in fact, that it often times becomes hard to see her in her role as servant.  Over time, the reader becomes more accustomed to seeing her two billionaire lovers serve and adore their enchanting butler turned muse.

Coupled with the fascinating evolution of the upstairs/downstairs plot line.  The time and detail given to the development of the shared eroticism between out three main characters is phenomenal.  Unlike most menage reads, Seduction features a relatively slow and study build in interaction.  In so doing, making room within said relationship for the readers' investment.  Creating an intensely readable and surprisingly relatable fantasy experience.
 


About Calista
Calista is a former PR professional, now writing fast-paced, steamy books to set your pulse racing!
She has won many Reviewer’s and Reader’s Choice Awards, as well as Best Book Awards. Calista has crossed the country many times over by corporate jet and travels internationally, always with her laptop in tow to capture intriguing story elements and exotic locales! She is also a member of Romance Writers of America and a Past President/Advisor of the Phoenix chapter.

Find Calista and Seduction
Follow SMP Romance
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Get The 411 On Just Why "Lady Claire Is All That."

29772436 Title:  Lady Claire Is All That
Author:  Maya Rodale
Format:  eARC
Length:  384 pages
Publisher:  Avon Books 
Rating:  4 Stars

Her Brains
Claire Cavendish is in search of a duke, but not for the usual reasons. The man she seeks is a mathematician; the man she unwittingly finds is Lord Fox: dynamic, athletic, and as bored by the equations Claire adores as she is by the social whirl upon which he thrives. As attractive as Fox is, he’s of no use to Claire . . . or is he?

Plus His Brawn
Fox’s male pride has been bruised ever since his fiancée jilted him. One way to recover: win a bet that he can transform Lady Claire, Society’s roughest diamond, into its most prized jewel. But Claire has other ideas—shockingly steamy ones. . .

Equals A Study In Seduction
By Claire’s calculations, Fox is the perfect man to satisfy her sensual curiosity. In Fox’s estimation, Claire is the perfect woman to prove his mastery of the ton. But the one thing neither of them counted on is love . . .


 





Bonus Excerpt: Lady Claire is All That




LADY CLAIRE IS ALL THAT
One of my favorite writing “rules” is to “kill your darlings” but sometimes your darlings totally work in the story, so you get to keep them and love them. I daresay this scene between Lady Claire Cavendish and Lord Fox is one of them. In my drafts, the chapter title was “Mansplaining,” which is exactly what happens, although the word wasn’t exactly in use in London, circa 1824, hence the less thrilling title of “chapter 3.” But I digress–I love this scene between a very smart woman and the less intelligent man trying to woo her. Spoiler: she gets to be brilliant.

Chapter 3
Lord Fox has wasted no time finding a new woman after being jilted by Arabella Vaughn. He seems to have taken an interest in Lady Claire Cavendish, of all the ladies in London. This author knows not what to make of it.
—Fashionable Intelligence, The London Weekly
The next evening, the card room at yet another ball
Claire’s sister Amelia often complained about the tedium of balls—after the novelty had worn off, Claire privately agreed, though she knew better than to encourage Amelia by admitting she felt the same. As the eldest, she had to set an example. Always. It was almost as tedious as enduring London soirees.
Fortunately, she developed stratagems to keep herself sane in these endless social events. First, her trick with the dance card—she simply told every gentleman who inquired that her card was full and thus she was able to politely refuse her offers to dance, an activity at which she did not excel and thus did not care to partake in.
But even she came to enjoy balls when she discovered the card room. She could stand to the side and watch emotions run high as lords and ladies would win and lose fortunes at the mere turn of a card. She watched as they made idiotic wagers and foolish choices that led to disastrous outcomes that might have been avoided with some rational thought and calculations. In her head, Claire counted cards, calculated odds, and made her own private wagers on the outcome. In her head, she’d won a fortune of her own.
She yearned to play a hand herself and to win on the strength of her intelligence and rational judgment. Even more she wanted to play against the lords and ladies who gossiped relentlessly about her family. She wanted to beat them. Take their money, their jewels, their hunting boxes in Scotland and dole them back out once people stopped making remarks about the smell of the stables when James went by or whispers about Amelia’s hoydenish behavior being embarrassing.
Most of all, she wanted an activity with which to occupy her brain.
She was too smart to simper on the sidelines of ballrooms.
Claire was edging her way closer to a table where a game was in progress and deliberating as to how she might join in when the oh-so-handsome Lord Fox found her. She thought she’d been rid of him.
Lord Fox, of the brawn and male beauty and inane conversation. Lord Fox, who was a little too certain that he was a treasure from heaven sent down for women. Lord Fox, who attracted attention when he spoke to her. She did not want attention.
“Good evening, Lady Claire.” He bowed and she inclined her head slightly. “It seems we meet again.”
“So it would seem.” She cast him a bored glance. “Good evening, Lord Fox.”
“Is your dance card full again?”
He gave her the sort of glance that was supposed to make her knees weak.
“Yes. Every last dance.” From now until Judgment Day.
“Yet you are in the card room,” he pointed out. “Shall I escort you back to the ballroom?”
Damn. She was caught in a lie. She eyed him more carefully now, not wanting to underestimate him again. She took in his green eyes, fixed on her. A lock of black hair fell rakishly across his forehead. It was the sort of thing silly girls would sigh over, but as someone who usually wore her hair severely pulled back from her face, it just annoyed her.
“Well, this dance isn’t claimed,” she said.
“May I have the honor of this dance?”
Claire didn’t think twice about refusing him, again. She hadn’t the slightest clue why he had suddenly taken an interest in her but she saw no point in encouraging him. Furthermore, etiquette dictated that if a woman refused a dance, then she wasn’t able to accept another dance for the rest of the evening. This suited her just fine.
Sometimes, knowing the rules of etiquette could work to a woman’s advantage. Not that she’d ever tell Amelia that. Or maybe she ought to. Her baby sister was willfully ignorant when it came to such matters.
But first, a rejection.
Because Fox didn’t seem terrible, just misguided in his attentions, she decided to let him down gently.
“I’m afraid I cannot. For health reasons.” She coughed delicately. Men were usually terrified of women’s ailments.
“Of course,” he said dryly. “Women have such delicate constitutions. Why, the slightest thing could gravely endanger their health—a gust of wind that is too strong or too cool, for example. Perhaps the lemonade offered tonight was not sufficiently tepid. Or your corset might be laced too tightly.” He said this with a look that suggested he’d like to loosen her corset and suddenly hers did feel too tight. “There are any number of reasons why a woman would feel under the weather.”
Every fiber of her being wanted to disagree with him.
“That is why it’s best that I remain here, where I will be unperturbed.”
“Indeed, there is nothing much to excite you here. Playing cards might be interesting, but watching others play is certainly tedious. But do take care not to overtax your lady brainbox by trying to understand the rules of the game.”
This time when she coughed, it was because a hot ball of rage had lodged in her throat. Men. And the assumptions they made about women—especially the assumption that all women were the same.
If she weren’t so determined to avoid this overbearing male, Claire would have given him a piece of her mind. She would have told him in no uncertain terms that she did indeed enjoy watching the game, far more than she enjoyed his belittling conversation. She would have informed him that her “lady brainbox” was more capable of understanding it and winning it than all the male brains in the room combined.



LADY CLAIRE IS ALL THAT
She bit her lip and said none of that.
“The game is vingt-et-un,” Fox explained. “It’s French for twenty-one.”
“I am aware.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if they taught foreign languages to girls over in the colonies,” he said with a laugh. “Wasn’t sure if they taught anything other than tossing tea in the harbor.”
“I assure you my education was—”
“Now the object of this game is to get one’s cards as close to twenty-one as possible without going over.”
Claire just sighed and rolled her eyes. This was the story of her life. Men explained things to her that she not only knew, but knew far more about.
“An ace can be either high or low.”
Claire wanted to scream.
And just when she was about to throttle this man, who had for some reason developed the habit of seeking her out and annoying her, he asked, “Would you care to play?”
Claire’s rage dissipated. Slightly.
“Yes, thank you, I would.”
She would play, and win, and stun him into silence with the brilliance of her female brain. He would see that she was a frighteningly intelligent bluestocking future-spinster-witch and would never ask her to dance again. Which would be fine.
My Thoughts
This is a romance that is made to be devoured. Claire Cavendish may be bookish. But she more than proves that she comes more than equipped with the stuff that both scandal and interesting reading are made of.
Her leading man and counterpart, one Lord Fox, proves that though his knowledge base may lie far from the learned halls of academia. He has more than enough smarts to know when his heart has been bested.

This very fun take on the My Fair Lady, with a twist. Is a fast paced romantic thrill ride that promises and delivers brains, brawn, bravado, passion, and heart in spades.

Yes, dear reader.  It seems that those damned Americans can't resist bringing scandal and scintillation with them wherever they dare tread.  For Claire that would include the male dominated halls of the London Royal Society.  A place so full of scientific theory and mathematical rationale, that it could never be fit for the delicate nature of any woman.
But Claire Cavendish is out to prove that she is not just any woman, and though her waltz may not be fit for anyone's ballroom.  Her quick mind can out pace even the best logical minds of any sex.

For his part, the handsomely rakish Lord Fox, seems quite the wilted and jilted bloom.  Having just been on the receiving end of quite the public setting down by one Arabella Vaughn.
But his wager with fellow rogue and best friend Lord Mowbray is more than enough evidence that he is willing to be quite the "sport" about the entire affair.
 Even going so far as to wager that he can and will turn any "blushing Betty" into the "Belle of The Blooming Ball".

"Oh really?...Has he met Claire  Cavendish?"

What makes this third installment of the Keeping Up With The Cavenishes series so very readable, is the fact that no one is perfect.  Fox couldn't solve an equation if his life was at stake, and Claire is about as athletic as a geriatric turtle.  But time and again.  The two seem to find a commonality of purpose and share an undeniable chemistry that makes irresistible reading.
  



This latest addition to the Keeping Up With The Cavendishes is indeed "all that" and so much more.



About Maya
Maya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence and it wasn’t long before she was writing her own. Maya is now the author of multiple Regency historical romances. She lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own.


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Barclay Publicity Presents: Second Circle Tatoos Release Blitz & Giveaway

About Second Circle Tattoos: The Complete Series
The tattoo artist with a heart of gold.
The playboy with his own hidden scars.
The international rockstar who longs for a home.
The mechanic with a dark past.
These are the heroes of Second Circle Tattoos. Trent, Cujo, Dred, Reid. And now all four books are together for the first time in a fabulous, low priced eBook box set featuring an exclusive epilogue. Why pick one book boyfriend when you can have all four?

The Strongest Steel
Harper Connelly never expected to find herself outside of a tattoo parlor at one in the morning. The scars that decorate her back are just one more reminder of things she'd rather forget, the past she wants to leave far behind her, but before she can move on, she needs him. Trent Andrews has his own reasons for specializing in inking over scars. And there's no way in hell he's going to turn Harper away. Being with Harper is like going ten rounds in the ring—exhilarating, powerful, and dangerous. She stirs feelings in him he thought were long gone...if he can only get past her carefully constructed defenses.

The Fractured Heart
Tattoo artist Brody "Cujo" Matthews knows how to keep things simple. In life and in love.That all changes when he meets Drea Caron, the definition of high maintenance and sizzling curves. And the one woman he doesn’t want to walk away from. Andrea "Drea" Caron is broke and tired. After years of caring for her ailing mom, she's at the end of her rope trying to manage the piling medical bills, two jobs, and a life placed on hold. She certainly doesn’t need the added frustration of a sexy playboy tattoo artist messing up her carefully balanced life. Too bad the universe has other ideas.

The Purest Hook
Rugged, hot, and rock hard, Dred Zander is exactly the type of man that normally sends Pixie running. Not dreaming about running her hands down his washboard abs...and lower. The lead singer and guitarist for the band Preload embodies trouble behind his quick smile and guarded eyes, and Pixie left trouble behind her years ago along with the name Sarah Jane Travers and the pathetic trailer her mom called home. But Dred has other ideas. Pixie's sweet hazel eyes, purple hair and kaleidoscopic tattoo of exotic flowers that swirl up her arm haunt his dreams, and he's ready to fight like hell to keep that feeling.

The Darkest Link
When her car breaks down off the side of a lonely highway far from her sunny Miami home, tattoo artist Lia never expected her very own white knight to ride up on the back of a barely street-legal motorcycle...and she never expected to fall for her dark savior. A bruised heart Lia is not looking for forever, and the hot mechanic, with his sexy scruff and shaggy hair, is simply impossible to resist. He's the perfect candidate for a mind-blowingly-perfect, no-strings-attached one-night stand. But when their fling becomes something more and Reid surprises her at her tattoo studio, Second Circle Tattoos, he's in for a shock—and a fist to the face—when his past and present collide.



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Second Circle Tattoos: The Complete Series
The Strongest Steel
The Fractured Heart
The Purest Hook
The Darkest Link
by Scarlett Cole
Release Date: January 3, 2017

 


Exclusive excerpt:
"So, I don't want you to get mad, Shortcake, but I have a surprise for you," Cujo said. Nervously, he ran his hand through his blond hair as the opulent elevator of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas took him and his unsuspecting soon-to-be fiancée up to their room. He studied Drea's hazel eyes. Eyes that lit up when she smiled, that became red and blotchy when she cried, and went wide when she came apart in his arms like she had in bed that morning. Right now they looked at him suspiciously.
"More of a surprise than this morning when you woke me and told me I had an hour to pack and get ready?" She grinned at him and flicked her long-layered hair over her shoulder. "A surprise I am very grateful for. It’s a nice break before I go back for my second year of school." Confidently, Drea stepped toward him, lifted up onto her toes, and brushed her lips against his in a kiss which had him second guessing the surprise waiting for them in their room. He should have ensured it would be empty so he could throw her down on the bed, claim one more state on his places-I-fucked-Drea map. But that was going to have to wait, because first he had to get down on one knee and ask the one question he'd been so certain she'd say yes to when he’d put all of the plans in place. Now he was less than ten minutes away from doing the deed, he wasn't feeling quite so confident. He loved her with every fucking cell in his body and was certain she felt the same way. So why was asking her to confirm that with a ring so nerve-wracking?
He’d inked her name on his body. Hell, all the tattoos on his left arm were dedicated to her. So why should putting ink on a piece of paper, a marriage certificate, feel so much more important?

Copyright © 2017 by Scarlett Cole




About Jordan Reclaimed (book one) - Release Date: February 28, 2017
Jordan Steele’s life began when he was ten. When he was taken from his parents and a house that was never a home. When he met his brothers, the other lost and abandoned boys in his group home. When he learned what friendship and family and love looked like.
Now he’s made good, touring the world with the band he and his brothers formed in that crowded group home. No one but his found family really knows the man under the fame and fortune, the scars he hides behind the rockstar lifestyle. Until he sees her through the windows of the National Ballet, dancing, and suddenly the world doesn’t seem so dark.
Aleksandra Artemov ticks all the ballet boxes. Father a legendary Kirov dancer. Check. Prepping since birth for classical ballet. Check. Compulsive control over the food she eats. Check. Principal dancer at The National Ballet of Canada. Check. But what she craves is freedom.
She craves Jordan.
Everything about him should terrify her. His size, his tattoos, his edge. But he doesn’t. He stirs her very soul. Jordan has nothing but himself to offer her, and he's never been good enough for anyone. Can he figure out how to face his own demons before he loses his light for good?
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Scarlett Cole is a writer of contemporary romance and a two-time RITA finalist. Her debut, The Strongest Steel, has already become an Amazon best seller in romantic suspense, was a Best Debut Goodreads Author Finalist 2015, and Authors On The Air Global Radio Network Contemporary Romance Pick of 2015.
When Scarlett isn't writing, she spends her time reading, hoarding mason jars, and working out to off-set an epic sour candy habit. She likes hot men, cold beer, and expensive shoes.
Having travelled the world for work and fun, Scarlett is a citizen of both Britain and Canada. A true city-dweller, she considers Toronto and Manchester home and likes to set her books in vibrant locations such as Miami and Los Angeles.
Rep'd by Beth Phelan at The Bent Agency, and published by St. Martin's Press.
Connect with Scarlett

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Audio Awesomeness: Quintessenially Q

18398089 Title:  Quintessentially Q
(Monsters In The Dark #2)
Author:  Pepper Winters
Review Format: Audio
Length:  12hrs. 22mins.
Publisher:  Punch Audio viaAudible
Narrator(s) Hannah Belle, Jacob Morgan
Rating:  4 Stars

“All my life, I battled with the knowledge I was twisted… screwed up to want something so deliciously dark—wrong on so many levels. But then slave fifty-eight entered my world. Hissing, fighting, with a core of iron, she showed me an existence where two wrongs do make a right."

Tess is Q’s completely. Q is Tess’s irrevocably. But now, they must learn the boundaries of their unconventional relationship, while Tess seeks vengeance on the men who sold her. Q made a blood-oath to deliver their corpses at Tess’s feet, and that’s just what he’ll do.

He may be a monster, but he’s Tess’s monster.

This is a story of eroticism, horror, and sweet tragedy. It contains graphic scenes, but there’s always light in the darkness.




Q moved suddenly, pushing off from the cage and striding toward the entrance of the aviary. He unlocked the deadbolt and entered the space. Birds chirped louder as Q stood in the centre of their world. He looked like a man robbed of his own wings. A fallen angel that had no place on earth and fought a daily battle to fit in.
I stepped forward. Should I say something? Comfort him? My heart twisted, needing to be there for him, but no longer able to. No matter how many kind words I spoke, Q would see I no longer lived inside.
My soul jangled with chains and locks, saving me but also ruining me. The longer I lived in my tower the more passion and connection faded.
I hated the numbing virus inside, spreading slowly, deleting all memory of who Tess had been. I was replaced with a carbon replica who would float away in the wind, robbed of her convictions and thoughts. All because I wasn’t strong enough to face what I’d done.
Q cursed under his breath, his chest pumping with emotion. “Why should I keep you when you don’t want to be here? You’re not here for me. You’re here because I lock you up. You’re my prisoners, my captives, my trophies.”
He hung his head before waving his arms. Allez vous-en. Je ne veux plus de vous. Elle ne veut plus de plus alors ça sert à quoi, putain? ” Fly away. I no longer want you. She no longer wants me, so what’s the fucking point?
The birds went crazy, darting left and right, spying freedom through the open door. They exploded through the exit and into the conservatory, weaving through plants and water features.
Wings rustled as I ducked from a small flock of robins.
“Get out!” Q yelled; the birds flurried harder. “Get far away from me.”
I stepped backward, not wanting to see Q breakdown. I wanted it to hurt—to kill me with knowledge that I’d ripped out his heart—but all I felt was emptiness.
Q looked up and froze.
His eyes locked on mine, shining with rage and blackness. I prayed for some awakening, so I could put both of us out of our misery. I wanted to bring forth all my love for him and keep hiding from my guilt. I wanted to erase the darkness, the lostness and hate from his eyes, but I was useless.
Bowing my head, I dropped my gaze.
Q cursed, exiting the aviary, humming with anger and rage. He stalked toward me, stopping so close his body heat seared my skin.
I flinched, expecting him to lash out—to grab my hair, slap me—something to wake me up.
When he didn’t touch me, I looked up. Q murmured, “So low you must think of me.” He captured a curl, running it gently through his fingertips. “Fly away, esclave, if that is what you want. I won’t stop you.” His tone was bleak and derelict.

My Thoughts
Quintessentially Q is the second offering in Pepper Winters' darkly erotic Monsters In The Dark series.  Resuming a mere four days after heroine, Tess Snow, returns to her captor turned lover Quinton Mercer.
Quinton we come to find, is a man torn.  A man unable to reconcile his love for the woman who has broken down all of his defenses; with his burning desire to control, possess, and hurt her.

For her part. Tess Snow proves to be smart, resourceful, and most of all resilient.  Not only is she able to survive her initial kidnapping and sale at the hands of a ruthless human trafficking ring.  She also recovers from a brutal rape at the hands of her captors as well.  To find love under the iron hand of Q.

Though this book is told in both Tess's and Quinton's points of view, the focus of the story is primarily Q.  His thoughts, feelings, motivations.
As such, the reader is allowed a look into the mind of a true sadist...in love.

While it is true that the subject matter and graphic situations depicted in this read are high emotionally and psychologically provocative.  It is the individual struggle to love and connect with the other, that truly steals the heart.  A great deal of the physical and mental danger is placed squarely on the shoulders of Tess.  While Q is left to be as close to a white knight as a sadist can.

This is a wonderfully realized book that is sure to cause readers to run a grueling, but extremely rewarding emotional gauntlet.   When you add to that, the wonderfully expressed narrations of  Hannah Belle and Jacob Morgan.  This book is one that those who favor love on the dark side, can't help wanting.

Pepper WintersPepper Winters is a NYT and USA Today International Bestseller. She wears many roles. Some of them include writer, reader, sometimes wife. She loves dark, taboo stories that twist with your head. The more tortured the hero, the better, and she constantly thinks up ways to break and fix her characters. Oh, and sex... her books have sex.

She loves to travel and has an amazing, fabulous hubby who puts up with her love affair with her book boyfriends. She's also honoured to wear the IndieReader Badge for being a Top 10 Indie Bestsellers, best BDSM series voted by the SmutClub, and recently signed a two book deal with Grand Central. Her books are currently being translated into numerous languages and will be in bookstores in the near future.

Her Dark Romance books include:
Tears of Tess (Monsters in the Dark #1)
Quintessentially Q (Monsters in the Dark #2)
Twisted Together (Monsters in the Dark #3)
Debt Inheritance (Indebted #1)

Her Grey Romance books include:
Destroyed

Upcoming releases are:
First Debt (Indebted Series #2)
Ruin & Rule (Pure Corruption MC)
Je Suis a Toi (Monsters in the Dark Novella)
Forbidden Flaws (Standalone Erotic Romance)

To be the first to know of upcoming releases, please join Pepper's Newsletter (she promises never to spam or annoy you.)

NEWSLETTER: http://eepurl.com/120b5

Or follow her on her website

www.pepperwinters.com

She loves mail of any kind: pepperwinters@gmail.com





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Secrets, Magic, And Plot Twists Abound In "Shadow Study"

16130758Title:  Shadow Study
(Soul Finders #1)
Author:  Maria V. Snyder
Format:  eARC
Length:  384 pages
Publisher:  Mira
Rating:  4 Stars
 
When Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. She survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia.

Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands—and protect her relationship with Valek.
Suddenly, though, dissent is rising. And Valek’s job—and his life—are in danger.
As Yelena tries to uncover her enemies, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked.And now she must find a way to keep not only herself but all that she holds dear alive.







SHADOW STUDY Chapter One

Ugh, mud, Kiki said as she splashed through another puddle. The wet muck clung to her copper coat and dripped from her long tail. It packed into her hooves and coated the hair of her fetlocks with each step.

Through our mental connection I sensed her tired discomfort. Stop? I asked, Rest?

No. Images of fresh hay, a clean stall, and being groomed formed in Kiki's mind. Home, soon.

Surprised, I glanced around the forest. Melting piles of snow mixed with black clumps of dead leaves—signs that the cold season was losing its grip. Rain tapped steadily on the bare branches. The light faded, turning the already gray woods leaden. For the past few hours, I'd been huddling under my sopping wet cloak, trying to keep warm. With my thoughts fixed on my rendezvous with Valek, I'd failed to keep track of our location.

I scanned the area with my magic, projecting my awareness out to seek life. A few brave rabbits foraged in the soggy underbrush and a couple of deer stood frozen, listening to the squishy plodding of Kiki's passage. No souls haunted these woods. No humans within miles.

That wasn't a surprise. This remote area in the northern Featherstone lands had been chosen for that very reason. After Owen Moon ambushed us four years ago, Valek and I had decided to move to a less well known location between the Citadel in Sitia and the Commander's castle in Ixia.

I leaned forward in the saddle. We were getting close and my wet cloak no longer pressed so hard on my shoulders. At this pace, we'd reach our cozy cottage within the hour. Valek's involvement with Opal's rescue from the Bloodrose clan and the aftermath had kept him busy for months. Finally we would have a few precious days all to ourselves before he reported back to the Commander. He should already be there waiting for me. Visions of sharing a hot bath, snuggling by a roaring fire and relaxing on the couch once again distracted me.

Kiki snorted in amusement and broke into a gallop. Behind the clouds the sun set, robbing the forest of all color. I trusted Kiki to find the path in the semi-darkness as I kept a light magical connection to the wildlife nearby.

In mid-stride, Kiki jigged to the right. Movement flashed to the left along with the unmistakable twang of a bow. Kiki twisted under me. I grabbed for her mane, but a force slammed into my chest and knocked me from the saddle.

Hitting the ground hard all the air in my lungs whooshed out as pain erupted. Fire burned with each of my desperate gasps. Without thought, I projected again, searching for the...person who had attacked me. Despite the agony, I pushed as far as I could. No one.

Kiki, smells? I asked. She stood over me, protecting me.

Pine. Wet. Mud.

See magician?

No.


Not good. The person had to be protected by a magical null shield. It was the only way to hide from me. Null shields blocked magic. At least it also prevented the magician from attacking me with his or her magic since it blocked magic from both sides of the shield. But it wouldn't stop another arrow. And perhaps the next one wouldn't miss.

I glanced at the shaft. The arrow had struck two inches above and one inch to the left of my heart, lodging just below my clavicle. Fear banished the pain for a moment. I needed to move. Now.

Rolling on my side, I paused as an icy sensation spread across my chest. The tip had been poisoned! I plopped back in the mud. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on expelling the cold liquid. It flowed from the wound, mixing with the blood already soaked into my shirt.

Instead of disappearing, the poison remained as if being refilled as fast as I ejected it. With pain clouding my thoughts, the reason eluded me.

Kiki, however figured it out. She clamped her teeth on the arrow's shaft. I had a second to realize what she planned before she yanked the arrow from my chest.

I cried as intense pain exploded, blood gushed and metal scraped bone all at once. Stunned, I laid on the ground as black and white spots swirled in my vision. On the verge of losing consciousness, I spotted the hollow barbed tip of the arrow coated with my blood, reminding me of the danger. I remained a target. And I wasn't about to make it easy for my attacker to get another shot.

Fix hole, Kiki said.

I debated. If I healed myself now, then I'd be too weak to defend myself. Not like I was in fighting condition. Although I still had access to my magic, it was useless against arrows, and, as long as the assassin hid behind the null shield, it couldn't touch him or her with my magic either.

Kiki raised her head. Her ears cocked. We go. Find Ghost.

I groaned. How could I forget that Valek was nearby? Smart girl.

With the arrow still clutched in her teeth, Kiki knelt next to me. Grabbing her mane, I pulled myself into the saddle. Pain shot up my arms and vibrated through my rib cage when she stood. She turned her head and I took the arrow. It might give us a clue about the assassin's identity.

I crouched low over Kiki's back as she raced home. Keeping alert for another twang, I focused my awareness on the surrounding wildlife. If the animals sensed an intruder, I'd pick up on their fear. A sound theory, except I'd been in contact with the deer when the arrow struck. I'd be impressed by the assassin's skills if I wasn't in so much pain.

It didn't take long for us to reach our small stable. The main doors had been left open. A warm yellow glow beckoned. Kiki trotted inside. The lanterns had been lit and Onyx, Valek's horse, nickered a greeting from his stall. Kiki stopped next to a pile of straw bales. Relieved to be safe, I slid onto them then lay down.

Kiki nudged my arm. Lavender Lady fix hole.

After Ghost comes. I suspected I would drop into an exhausted sleep once I healed the injury and I knew Valek would have questions.

She swished her muddy tail and stepped away. Ghost.

Valek appeared next to me. His confusion turned to alarm as his gaze swept my blood-soaked shirt. "What happened?"

No energy for a detailed explanation, I filled him on the basics and handed him the arrow.

All animation dropped from Valek's angular face. Fury blazed in his sapphire-blue eyes as he examined the weapon. Clear liquid dripped from the hollow shaft. He sniffed it. "Did you expel all the poison?"

"I think so." Hard to tell for sure, but I wouldn't add more fuel to his anger. Valek's hard expression already promised murder.

He smoothed the hair from my cheek. "How bad is it?"

"Not as bad as it looks. Now go, before the assassin gets away." I shooed.

"I'm not leaving you unprotected."

Kiki huffed and flicked her tail, splattering mud on Valek's black pants. I yanked my switchblade from its holder, triggering the blade. "I'm far from unprotected. Douse the light before you go."

"All right. I'll station Onyx outside the stable. Stay here." Valek opened Onyx's stall and the black horse trotted out. After he extinguished the lantern, Valek disappeared into the blackness.

I lay there listening for any sounds. My shoulder and left arm throbbed. Each inhalation caused a sharp stab of pain in my chest. To ease the discomfort, I pulled a thin thread of magic from the blanket of power that encompassed the world. A mental picture of the injury formed when I focused on the wound. My clavicle had been broken. The arrow had sliced through my muscles on impact, and the metal barbs in the arrow's head had ripped chunks of skin when Kiki had yanked it out. Lovely. I used the ribbon of power to lessen the pain—a temporary measure.

Sending my awareness into the surrounding forest, I kept a light contact with the nocturnal creatures. Too bad my bat was hibernating over the cold season. His unique senses would have helped with finding the assassin in the dark. The wildlife conducted their nightly hunt of food and showed no signs of agitation—not even from Valek. His immunity to magic prevented me from keeping track of him. I hoped he stayed sharp.

As time passed without incident, I wondered who had attacked me. That line of thought didn't go far as all I could deduce at this point was the person was a magician who had the power to form a null shield, who favored a bow and arrow, and may have an affinity with animals. Either that or he/she was really quiet and had masked his/her smell.

Unfortunately, pondering why I was attacked generated a longer list. As the official liaison between the Commander of the Territory of Ixia and the Sitian Council, I've created at least a dozen political and criminal enemies in the last six years. As the heart mate of Valek, the infamous Ixian assassin, for the last eight years I was a target for anyone who hated Valek, which included most of Sitia and probably hundreds of Ixians. As a magician and Soulfinder, I made many people nervous, worrying I'd turn rogue. These people were under the mistaken impression that I could create a soulless army when in fact all I did was find lost souls and guide them to either to an eternity of peace in the sky or an eternity of suffering in the fire world, depending on their deeds while alive.

A slight squish jolted me from my thoughts. Careful of my injury, I sat up and swung my legs over the bales of straw. Then I slid off. Better to stand and fight then be caught lying down. The darkness outside was one hue lighter than inside due to the faint moonlight. It illuminated just enough to see shapes.

I kept alert for any movement, peering through the door. When Kiki stepped between me and the entrance, I startled. Even though she was sixteen and a half hands high she could be really quiet. Her back was taller than me and she blocked my view. Granted I only reached five foot four inches, but she was a big girl like most Sandseed horses.

A few more squishes set my heart to beat in double time. I tightened my grip on my switchblade.

Ghost, Kiki said, moving away.

I sagged against the bales. A Valek-shaped shadow strode into the stable. He lit the lantern. One look at his grim expression and I knew he'd lost the assassin's trail.

"The guy's a pro," he said. "He used magic to erase his footprints. They just stopped. And without leaves on the bushes, it's harder to track him, especially at night. I'll go out again in the daylight."

"He? How do you know?"

"Big boots, deep prints. We can discuss it later. Let's go inside and take care of you."

"Kiki first." And before he could argue, "She saved my life. If she hadn't moved, the arrow would have pierced my heart."

Valek's shoulders dropped. Knowing I wouldn't leave, he worked fast. He removed her saddle and knocked the dried mud off her legs and stomach. After he cleaned out her hooves, she walked into her stall and munched on hay.

"Guess she's happy enough," Valek said, tossing the pick into a bucket. "Now, let's get you warm and dry, love."

I removed my muddy cloak and left it on the bales before I wrapped my right arm around Valek's shoulders. He wanted to carry me, but I worried he might jar the broken bone out of alignment and I wouldn't have enough strength to heal it.

The sharp pain returned by the time we reached the house. I made it as far as the couch. A bright fire burned in the hearth and a bottle of wine sat on the end table with two glasses and a plate of cheese. Valek must have arrived a few hours before me.

Tilting my head at the food, I said, "That's lovely."

"We'll indulge after you're healed and rested. Do you want to change first?"

Just the thought of moving my left arm hurt. "No."

"Then what are you waiting for?"

"A kiss. I haven't seen you in months."

Valek transformed when he smiled. The sharp angles of his face softened and warmth radiated from him. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine. Before I could deepen the kiss he pulled back.

"No more until you're better."

"Meanie."

"Yelena." His stern tone would have made my mother proud.

"All right." I reclined on the couch and closed my eyes.

Reaching for the power blanket, I gathered a thick thread of magic. I wound this ribbon around my broken clavicle, fusing the two pieces back together. A second thread knitted the muscles and a third replaced skin. The effort exhausted me. Drained dry, I passed out.

#

By the time I woke, afternoon sunlight flooded the living area. Besides the green plaid couch, a couple of oversized nubby brown armchairs and a matching love seat made a semi-circle in front of the hearth. In the center, a deep pile dark brown rug—soft on the feet and...other body parts.

All that was left of the fire was ashy coals and half-burnt logs. The wine and glasses remained—a promise for later. No sounds emanated from the rest of the cottage, but moving without a sound was second nature for Valek. I called his name just in case. No response.

I opened my mind to Kiki. Is everything okay? I asked.

Quiet. Nap time, she said.

If the horses could sleep, then all should be well. Ghost?

Out. Woods.

My left shoulder and upper chest ached. The muscles would be sore for a few days. I sat up and examined the wound. Purple bruises surrounded an angry red circle. Another scar to add to my collection. I'd stopped counting three...or was it four injuries ago? Stretching with care, I tested my range of motion. Not bad.

The cold had soaked into my bones. My blanket had fallen to the floor. A hot soak in the tub should cure it in no time.

Stiff with blood and poison, my shirt reeked. All the more reason to bathe. But first a quick check of the rest of the cottage. It wouldn't take long. I palmed my switchblade, but didn't trigger the blade.

The ground floor consisted of a living area, kitchen, and washroom. The living area spanned the left half of the cottage while the kitchen and washroom occupied the right half. The hearth sat in the middle of the building so all the rooms could share its warmth.

I peered into the kitchen. A layer of dust covered the table and chairs, but the wash sink, cold storage box, and water jugs had been cleaned. Nothing appeared out of place.

The washroom's entrance was to the right of the hearth. I smiled. Valek had filled the large water tank near the back wall. Hot coals glowed underneath—one of the benefits of having a stone floor. I tested the water with my finger. Almost perfect.

I climbed the stairs to the single bedroom in the loft. Our cottage was too small for company, another excellent reason to purchase it.

My red-silk robe and clean clothes had been spread out on the king sized bed. Valek had been busy. I resisted the urge to check under the bed as I undressed. I'd have to ask my cousin Nutty to repair yet another shirt. Other than a few mud stains, I could still wear my black wool pants. I donned the robe--a gift from Valek. Running my fingers over the smooth material, I verified all my surprises remained in place. Valek always included weaponry with my gifts.

Which reminded me. I removed the lock picks, releasing my long black hair.

After a quick peek outside to check for signs of intruders, I returned to the washroom. Steam floated from the water's surface. I opened the valve and the warm liquid rushed into the sunken tub—another selling point. Turning off the water, I banked the coals, hung my robe on the hook, and settled in, oohing and ahhing until only my head remained above water.

Wonderful for about five minutes. Then the door squeaked and I lunged for my switchblade.

"Sorry," Valek said. He leaned against the door's frame as if it kept him from falling.

Had he been up all night? "Did you find anything?"

"He's gone. I found nothing except those boot prints. No doubt he's a professional with magical abilities." He rubbed the stubble on his chin. "That will be the key to finding him. Not many people have that combination of skills. He's probably already a person of interest. I'll have to check my sources."

I resisted correcting him. What he called sources were really Ixian spies in Sitia, which as Liaison, I'd been trying to stop. Ixia and Sitia shouldn't be spying on each other. Instead, they needed to form a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

"Unless he's a new assassin. Some young hot shot."

Valek straightened. "That's a possibility. And if that's the case, then he chose the wrong target if he wishes to grow old."

"After you find out who hired him."

"Of course. Any ideas who..." He shook his head. "We should make a list of who doesn't want to kill you, love. It'd be shorter."

I'd be offended, but it was actually a good idea. "Let's not let it ruin our vacation. Join me."

He hesitated, frowning.

Oh no. Bad news. "Tell me."

"I have to leave in the morning."

"Not because of the attack?"

"No. The Commander ordered me to return earlier than I'd planned. He's been very patient. I've been in Sitia for most of the last year and he says I'm needed for an urgent matter. I'm sorry we have to cut our vacation a few days short."

Even though disappointment pulsed, I understood his loyalty to the Commander. And the Commander has been more than generous with Valek's time. Working with Opal and helping to stop the Bloodrose clan, Valek has done more for Sitia than Ixia.

No sense moping about something I couldn't change. Suppressing my frustration with the time limit, I splashed Valek. "Come on in while the water's hot."

He grinned and peeled off his clothes. Scars crisscrossed his long lean muscles, and a faded C-shaped scar marked the center of his chest. Even after spending seasons in Sitia, his skin remained pale, which contrasted with his shoulder-length black hair.

"Like what you see, love?" Valek stepped into the water.

"You lost weight."

He huffed. "Janco's a lousy cook."

"Did Janco pout when you ditched him to come here?"

"Yes, but it was fake. He's more than ready to return to Ixia." Valek settled next to me. "Do you really want to talk about him right now?" He gaze burned hotter than the water.

"Who?"

"Exactly." He ran his thumb over my wound. "Does it hurt?"

"No." His touch drove the cold away as a fire ignited in my heart.

He closed the distance between us and our lips met. Another perk of stone floors, no worries about water damage.

#

Morning sunlight and chills woke me late the next morning. Memories of last night replayed and I remained in bed savoring them. We'd gone from the tub to the living area, drank the wine, tested the softness of the rug, and then up to the bedroom. My lips still tingled from Valek's pre-dawn good-bye kiss.

Another chill raced along my skin. Shivering, I pulled the blanket up to my chin. All my bones ached as if encased in ice. Unease swirled. Something was...off. Wrong.

Without warning, a wave of heat slammed into me. I yanked the blankets off and jumped to my feet. Sweat poured, soaking my nightshirt as dizziness threatened to topple me. I sank to the ground. The heat disappeared as fast as it had arrived, but the cold returned, seeping into my skin, freezing the sweat into a layer of ice.

Before I could pull the blanket over me, another hot flash consumed me. Memories of going through the fire to enter the fire world rose unbidden. The searing pain of my flesh burning all too familiar. I batted at my arms even though I knew my skin hadn't been set on fire.

Maybe I hadn't expelled all the poison.

Between gasps of breath, the ice extinguished the heat. My muscles tightened and cramped. My teeth chattered hard enough to cause a headache. I curled into a ball, afraid I'd shatter like an icicle hitting the ground.

When the fire blazed again, I straightened as steam rose from my skin. Then the cold reclaimed me. And it kept going back and forth, hot to cold and hot again. Like I had a super fast fever, which gave me no time to draw power to counter it

I endured the waves. Each flip drained my strength. One of two things was bound to happen. I'd either pass out or the attack would stop. There was a third possibility, but I preferred to stay positive.

After hours...days...weeks...the seizures ceased. At first I laid there bracing for the next cycle. But as time progressed without an attack, I slowly relaxed. With no energy to stand, I groped for the edge of the blanket and pulled it down, covering me. At this point, even the hard floor couldn't stop me from falling asleep.

#

Darkness greeted me when I woke. Every single muscle ached as if I'd ran here from the Citadel. My dry throat burned and my stomach hurt. I needed water, food, and a bath. But first, I needed to ensure that I didn't have another attack. Had the poison run its course? Or was it still inside me? One way to find out.

I drew a deep breath and reached for the blanket of power. Nothing happened. Trying again, I concentrated on pulling a thread of magic.

Nothing.

Fear pushed up my throat. I swallowed it down determined not to panic.

I opened my mind to Kiki. What's going on?

No response. Not even images.

Dead air surrounded me.

My magic was gone.


From SHADOW STUDY MIRA Books, February 24, 2015

My Thoughts
Shadow Study does double duty as both Maria Snyder's fourth release in the critically acclaimed Study series, and the first offering in her Soulfinder series.  What this book is, more than anything however, is the biggest case of  "hi...ho...the gang's all here" that fans of the Poison character stable could ever want.

We've got Yelena and Valek, together and as close to being married as two people can be without actually tying the knot.  Janco and Ari brawling, besting, snooping, and doing what they do best.  Commander Ambrose holding the peace as only he can.  Fisk operating from the shadows and always managing to have as much information as he does coin.  Leif just being Lief.
And...Opal doing her magic thing.

Just when readers thought that things were finally cooling down for Yalena and Valek.  Shadow Study puts the two right into the heart of danger in a  most deadly way.  It appears that in acting as acting liaison to both Sitia and Ixia, Yelena has made her share of very powerful friends and even more vengeful enemies.
One of whom, is out to hurt her in the worst way possible.  By taking her magic!
When an unseen arrow full of a mysterious potion finds its target in Yelena's body and manages to do just that.  It is up to a very human Yelena and the people she trusts most to find the key to restoring her magic, and find the one responsible.  Before it's too late and before her secret is discovered.

"Secrets" seems to be the word of the day plot-wise.  As we soon discover that Valek, Ambrose, and even the villain of the read have things about themselves and their motives that they spend the entire read keeping very close to the vest. Alternating POV's also help to keep the suspense alive and well.
It is in fact, the reader's task to follow the proverbial breadcrumbs in this most magical whodunit to a  surprisingly memorable  conclusion. Highlighting the fact that the action found in this read is far more mental than physical.

Topping the negative column this time around.  We have the following.  While the character interactions, character development, settings, and pacing are all spot on.  The plot seems to have a big deja vu point when we get to Valek and his latest protégée Onora.  There is also a large swath of story spent on Yelena chasing her tail.  In her quest to find her magic.
If however, you can make it over these bumps in story road. The story, and its cliffhanger ending are well worth the effort.

About Maria
Maria V. SnyderMeteorologist turned novelist, Maria's been writing fantasy and science fiction since she was bored at work and needed something creative to do. A dozen novels and numerous short stories later, Maria's learned a thing or three about writing. She’s been on the New York Times bestseller list, won a half-dozen awards, and has earned her MA degree in Writing from Seton Hill University where she's been happily sharing her knowledge with the current crop of MFA students. She also enjoys creating new worlds where horses and swords rule, 'cause let's face it, they're cool, although she's been known to trap her poor characters in a giant metal cube and let them figure out how to get out. Readers are welcome to check out her website for book excerpts, free short stories, maps, blog, and her schedule at http://www.MariaVSnyder.com


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