Saturday, October 8, 2011

Choices

To celebrate the release of Honor Bound, my Japanese historical romance from Red Sage, I wanted to base my free read on a Japanese myth. During my research, I came across the story of the bamboo princess. As soon as I read it, my imagination went into overdrive. Below is the twist I put on this popular tale. I hope that you enjoy it!

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Title:Choices

Blurb: Can a bamboo princess outwit five princes and win a chance at love?

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Historical (Shogun Era), Paranormal

Heat Level: Sensual


Miki stopped pacing and wrung her hands. “But I can’t marry any of them. I don’t even know them.”

Her father rubbed his eyes. “I know, child. I know.” He picked up the stack of letters from the nearby chabudai. “But if you don’t marry one of the five princes, then they shall all become angry.” He shook his head as he shifted through the stack. “These are powerful men, Miki. I ask you, what will happen to your mother and I if we provoke the wrath of five kingdoms?” He waved the letters in the air between them. “These princes want to marry the bamboo princess. To deny them would be foolish.”

Miki lifted her chin. “Why does everyone insist on calling me that? I am neither made of bamboo, nor a princess.”

Her father placed the letters back on the chabudai. “I know, but no matter how hard I try to convince them otherwise, they insist that --”

The door opened, cutting off his sentence. Shiro, their head servant, entered with a bag over his shoulder. His large frame filled the doorway as he scanned the room. Miki took in his wide chest and narrow hips and felt a fluttering in her chest. He had proud, noble features and a sharp mind, one worthy of any king. And yet Shiro had been born on the wrong side of the sheets and was destined to serve instead of lead. Not that it mattered. Miki loved him regardless of his birth. It was society who had betrayed him, just like it had betrayed her.

Shiro’s features softened as his gaze rested on her, and it was as if a spell had been cast on the room. The air heated and a dull ache formed in her lower abdomen. She longed for this man with an intensity that made her dizzy, but knew that she could never act on it, at least not in public.

Ever since she was old enough to walk, she had loved Shiro. They had played side-by-side together as children, unaware of their different stations and different destinies. They would chase each other through her mother’s gardens and play otedama by the irori on cold winter nights.

“Put it over there, Shiro.” Her father motioned to a spot in the far corner of the room where they had been collecting bags of raw bamboo for market.

Miki held her breath as Shiro walked past. He was close enough to touch, and Miki longed to reach out and hold the hand of the man who had given her comfort in her youth, the one person who made her feel normal. She didn’t dare, however. Instead she watched the muscles ripple in his back as he approached the corner and settled the heavy bag on the floor. She wasn’t allowed to speak with him, but they had been meeting regularly under the cover of darkness. The meetings were thrilling and brief, and Miki lived for those stolen moments of passion.

“I suggest you read over these again.” Her father turned his back to Shiro and gestured toward the letters. “Surely one of these princes will suit your needs.”

Miki looked over her father’s shoulder at Shiro’s back. He appeared focused on the bamboo before him, but Miki saw his muscles tense and knew he was listening. Miki longed for the carefree days of youth. With age brought responsibility, and while Shiro was sent to work the land, she was too special to join them. At least, that was what her parents had told her. Instead Miki was kept hidden away in their home, away from cruel men who would want to use her for their own selfish gain. Men like the princes who wrote those letters.

“Miki, are you listening to me?”

“Of course, Father.” Miki dragged her gaze away from Shiro and to her father. Throughout her entire life, Shiro and her father were the only men who didn’t look at her and think of riches. It was why she loved them both so much.

Her father looked over his shoulder at Shiro, who was still organizing the bags of bamboo. “If I could change things, I would.” He returned his gaze to Miki. “But I can’t have five kingdoms angry with me.”

“If I choose one prince, then the other four will be angry.” Miki shook her head. “You can’t win, father.”

He thought or a moment. “Perhaps, but the one you marry would protect you from the others.”

“What if a sixth man, one not a prince, was to offer protection?” Shiro’s low voice rumbled through the room.

Miki held her breath as tension filled the air. Servants were never allowed to speak unless spoken to. Her father was more lenient than most, but to have a servant offer input on her future was not normal. Slaves in other households were punished for much less.

“Father, Shiro did not mean --”

“I spoke out of turn, Master.” Shiro inclined his head. “I am sorry.”

Miki tried to push back on her building desperation. “Father --”

Her father held up his hand, cutting off her words. Then he turned to face Shiro.

“If a sixth man saved my daughter from marrying someone she did not love, and spared me from the vengeful princes, I would welcome him with open arms,” he said.

The tension in the room evaporated as Miki realized that Shiro would not be punished for his mistake.

Shiro bowed to his master and then glanced at Miki, a smile forming on his lips. “I shall have to think about it, then.”

Miki watched him leave and wondered if he had a plan. She made a mental note to seek him out later that night.

“Think about it, child,” her father’s words brought her back to the present. “I trust you will come up with an answer.”

Her father followed Shiro out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Miki rushed over and scanned the letters again. One prince praised her body’s unique glow, saying that it could light the darkest night. Another admired her delicate fairy-like features and suggested that they could charm the most unruly king. The third lauded her singing, comparing it to an enchantress who could hold entire armies immobile with a few notes. The fourth and fifth spoke of her eyes, calling them beautiful silver orbs that could bend the most stubborn man to do her bidding.

None of them mentioned the rumors that she was causing the bamboo on her father’s property to grow golden nuggets in their stems. That was the real reason why the princes wanted to marry her. They believed the home she lived in would become rich and powerful.

These men didn’t care about her. Not one of them had visited. Not one of them had asked her whether she preferred tea or sake, or if she burned incense when she prayed. They didn’t care, and they never would.

Not like her father, who had found a golden-haired baby girl hidden among his bamboo plants and had taken her home to raise her as his own. He had loved and protected her as if she was part of his blood. She owed him much, and yet she found that even knowing this, it was difficult to make such a large sacrifice.

She tossed the letters aside and wiped her watery eyes with the back of her hand. How could the fates be so cruel?

A knock at the door jarred her from her thoughts. Before she could answer, it opened. Shiro’s dark head peeked inside.

“Are you all right?”

All of the worry and anger faded at the sight of her lover. “I am now.”

He glanced behind him and closed the door. “I don’t have much time.”

“There’s never enough time.” She knew she sounded bitter, but she couldn’t help it. If the princes had their way, then she would soon move away, and never be able to see her love again. Thinking about it made her chest ache and her eyes fill with tears.

“Miki.” His features softened and he closed the distance between them. “What happened?”

“It is nothing.” She had this moment with him, and she was determined to not waste it thinking of the future. Miki pushed her worries aside and smiled as he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her into the air.

“I’ve missed you,” she said as she reached around his head and loosened the leather strap around his hair. Black strands fell to his shoulders and she ran her fingers through them.

“You missed my hair,” he joked.

“No, I’ve missed you.” She kissed the tip of his nose. “Not a moment goes by, where I don’t think about you, about us.”

“And I think about you, too.” He turned their bodies and stepped forward until her back rested against the wall. “Every minute of every day, I think about moments like this.” The playfulness in his eyes disappeared, replaced by something dark and hungry. “I don’t want to lose you, Miki.”

Her joy faded, despair and sorrow taking its place. “Put me down, someone will hear us.”

“Your parents are sleeping.” He loosened his grip and let her slide to the floor. Miki’s skin heated as she slid against his hard, muscular body. Desire wound around her like vines, wrapping around her muscles and winding them tight.

When she touched the floor, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. Miki gasped at his sudden advance, but then melted against him. He nibbled at the side of her mouth, coaxing her to open. With a sigh, she parted her lips and tilted her head, deepening the kiss.

Shiro tightened his strong arms around her, cocooning her in warmth and safety. She inhaled his rich, earthy scent, tasted his jasmine-infused tongue, and knew that after work he had enjoyed tea served by one of the other servants instead of her. A stab of jealousy lanced her chest, and she did her best to let it go. She would never be able to bring him tea, or massage the sore muscles in his back. Their stations in life were so different. Their relationship could never be more than what it was, a collection of stolen moments and vague promises.

Miki broke the kiss and turned away as a hollow hole formed in her chest. Why couldn’t things be different?

“Talk to me.” Shiro reached up and pushed a golden lock from her face.

“No.” She grabbed his wrist and stopped his affectionate touch. It was all too much. If she couldn’t have Shiro, she didn’t want anyone. Miki let go of his wrist and stepped away.

“Miki, don’t shut me out. Please.”

Miki retrieved the letters and shoved them at his chest. “These princes will ruin me. Because of their greed, I will be taken away from you and forced to submit to a man I do not love.” She shook her head as her vision blurred with tears. “I can’t stand it.”

“Shh…” He ran his thumb down the side of her cheek. “Don’t cry. I may have a plan, but I need to read the prince’s demands first.”

She handed him the letters. He scanned the words, his features hardening as he flipped through the pages.

“These men don’t love you,” he said after a few moments.

“I know. They only want me for my curse.”

“You’re gift.” He placed the papers aside. “Ever since your father brought you home, I knew you were special.”

She fought the urge to smile. “How could you? You were four.”

“But I still knew.”

“Why? Because I was found among the bamboo, or because I glow like the stars in the sky?”

“Neither.”

“My hair, then.” She ran her fingers through her blonde locks. She hated the fact that she looked so different. Why couldn’t she be like everyone else? Then no one would care if she chose to spend her days with a servant instead of a prince.

Shiro slid his fingers up and down her arms, sending tingles of awareness over her skin. “It was your smile.”

She snorted. “I was a baby, just barely out of the womb.”

“And I was a young boy. And yet I knew then and there that we would become close.” His features softened. “It wasn’t until much later that I dared hope --”

“Please Shiro, stop.” She took his hands, and eased them away from her body. “I can’t bare it.” She nodded to the letters. “I wish I could burn those and make the selfish princes go away.”

“Maybe you can.”

She jerked her head up and met his gaze. “What do you mean?”

“You could say that your hand in marriage is based on one condition.”

“A condition?”

He nodded. “Yes, tell them that they must answer a question. Then make it something so difficult, that none of them will be able to come up with the correct answer.”

She thought about it for a moment. The idea had merit, but everything hinged on the question.

“What should I ask them?” she asked.

“That’s for you to decide.” He put his finger to her lips as she opened her mouth. “And don’t tell me your question, for I will need to answer it as well…if I want to have your hand in marriage.”

Joy filled her heart as he took his hand away. “You would challenge the princes?”

“I would challenge those self-centered princes and many more if you were the prize.”

Her spirit lifted, and Miki threw herself into Shiro’s arms. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

She stood up on her toes and pressed her lips against his. Heat slid over her body as he reached up and cupped the back of her head with his hands. She parted her lips, offering up not only her body, but her mind and soul as well. He was the one, her soul mate, she could feel it in her bones. Why couldn’t her parents see that?

Or perhaps they could. Her father was normally a reasonable man, not caught up in local Japanese politics. The threat of the wrath of five kingdoms was enough to give anyone pause. If she could manage to send all of those self-righteous princes away, then perhaps her father’s heart will open to the possibility of her marrying Shiro.

The thought sent a warm rush through her body, and a low, pulsing ache in her core. She grabbed onto Shiro’s cloak, curling her fingers into the thick fabric at his hips. She tugged him closer and parted her lips, inviting him to take more of her, to claim her for his own.

He growled, a low, throaty and passionate sound, as he tilted his head and deepened the kiss. She could feel his erection pressing against her lower abdomen. It stroked the sparks of her desire into a roaring flame. Heat and need swirled through her like steam from a teapot, and a primal desperation gnawed at her core. She let go of his cloak and slipped her arms around his trim hips, then rested them on his tight, firm ass. He slid his hands down and let his fingers trail over the open skin of her neck. His heady masculine scent surrounded her, making her feel dizzy with desire. His sweet jasmine taste made her crave more. She let her hands roam, wishing that she wasn’t touching rough fabric, but skin.

Miki knew he wanted the same, she could feel it in the way his body hardened, the quickness of his breath. He slipped his fingers down her arms, trailing them over her thin house robe until they rested by his hips. Then he grasped her arms and eased her hands away from his body.

She held back a whimper as he broke the kiss.

“We have to stop this,” he said.

“Why?”

“We aren’t married.”

“It’s only a matter of time.”

He smiled as he stepped out of her embrace and dropped her arms. “But we aren’t yet, and I could never disgrace you in that way. You’re too valuable to me. Once we’re together, I promise to give you so much more than just a kiss.” He reached out and cupped her cheek with his large palm. “So much more.” He ran his calloused thumb over her smooth skin. “But until then, your virtue must remain intact.”

Miki frowned. “Whether or not I am a virgin on my wedding night is not your decision to make.”

“Normally I would agree.” He dropped his arm. “But in this case, I know your father well. If word of our passion for each other spread, it would risk the anger of all the princes, and bring shame on your family.”

Why did he have to be so right all of the time? “I don’t want another minute to pass with us apart.”

“We only need to wait a little while longer.”

All of the erotic sensations she had felt before vanished, leaving her tired and irritable. She motioned to the door. “Fine. If I can’t be with you, then you might as well leave.”

“Miki…”

“Don’t ‘Miki’ me. You’ve made your point clear, now get out.” She walked over to the door and opened it for him. “Tomorrow, the five princes will come and demand a decision. I must prepare.” She motioned outside.

Shiro hesitated, clearly wanting to say something, but instead he nodded. “As you wish.”

Miki held her breath as he walked past, his masculine scent filling her nose and sparking the familiar longing in her core. She fought it back, knowing that it wouldn’t be appeased tonight. Perhaps it never would.

If everything went according to plan, then tomorrow she and Shiro would be betrothed. One misstep, and Miki would never see her lover again. As he approached, Miki realized that she didn’t want their relationship to end like this, with her hurt and him mad. She touched his cloak as he brushed past her, stopping his movements.

“You didn’t kiss me goodbye.”

“The next time I kiss you, you will be mine, and there will be no more goodbyes.” Then he was gone.

Miki closed the door and picked up one of the letters. She read through the scrawling script and then she put it down with a snort.

Miki paced the small room and chewed on her fingernail.

Tomorrow she’d put forth one question, and her fate would be sealed. If one of the princes figured out the answer, then she’d be forced to marry him. If the question was too hard for Shiro, then she could lose him as well. What was she going to do?

*****

Shiro stood in the shadows behind the bamboo plant as the princes walked into the grand room. The old bamboo cutter rose with his wife as they entered.

Miki’s father was getting on in years and was no longer the young, strong man who took Shiro in when he was orphaned at seven. It saddened his heart to know of his adoptive father’s frailties, but it also made him better understand the old man’s reasoning. Miki’s father could no longer defend his home from invaders, and needed his daughter to marry someone who could not only support her, but him and his aging wife as well. Shiro hoped more than anything that he could be that man.

“We demand an answer,” one of the princes announced as he stormed into the room.

“We have waited long enough,” another added.

“My daughter prepares herself, she has assured me that she has chosen, and will join us momentarily.”

Just as the old man had spoken, the door in the back room opened and in walked Miki. She was a vision to behold. Her long honey-colored hair was tied up tight in a bun, as was customary. Her face was painted with care, and her delicate, fairy-like features pulled at his heart-strings. A faint white glow shone around her body as she moved, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. They all saw the enchantress, the woman with the power to bring riches to whatever household she resided. Shiro didn’t see any of that. He only saw his beloved Miki, his soul mate.

Miki carried herself, not like a bamboo cutters daughter, but as a queen. Shiro had never been prouder. She would make a perfect wife.

Wife. For years Shiro had wanted her to be his, but didn’t know if her parents would allow her to marry someone born on the wrong side of the sheets. Her father’s words last night proved that her family would not only accept him, but welcome him with open arms. Finally, after years of waiting, Miki could be his. All he had to do was answer her question.


He felt his cock harden, and tried to think of less sensual thoughts as she strode to join her father. She appeared confident and strong, but Shiro noticed how she held her shaking hands at her sides. He resisted the urge to go to her, to gather in his arms and take her away from all of this. It wasn’t time yet. Once she sent all of the princes away, he would have his chance to claim her.

He only hoped that he could answer her question.

The princes took their turns bowing and kissing Miki’s hand. Jealousy rose up and stabbed Shiro’s chest, and he forced it back. Patience.

“I have made my decision,” Miki said after the last one moved back in line. “I will offer all of you a quest. The one who completes my quest will have my hand in marriage.”

The princes all nodded their agreement.

“She is wise,” one said.

“I will surely win,” said another.

Miki waited until the murmurs ceased. “Whoever first brings me my heart’s greatest desire shall have my hand in marriage.”

The princes whispered to each other as a dark hole opened in Shiro’s chest. Miki’s greatest desire? What could it be? He had no idea. For years their encounters had been so brief that they had no time to speak of such things.

“My lady,” one prince stepped forward and bowed. “What is your greatest desire?

She smiled. “That is for you to guess.” She looked at each of them in turn. “A good husband would know his wife’s desire, and seek to give it to her.”

The princes murmured between them once more.

“I believe my daughter’s request is fair. I will grant it,” her father said.

The princes nodded their agreement and Shiro began to panic. What could Miki’s greatest desire possibly be? He had no idea.

“I know what you desire.” The first prince stepped forward. “It is wealth. Marry me and I will give you as much money as you can spend in three lifetimes.”

Miki smiled. “I am sorry, that is your desire Prince Kochi, not mine.”

The prince’s features fell as he heard the words. He swallowed and straightened, determined to keep his pride. “As you wish.” He turned to the others and wished them luck.

One by one, the other princes made offers to Miki – power, fine silks and travel to great lands. Each time Miki turned them down. One by one the princes left until only one was standing.

“I know your heart’s greatest desire,” the prince said.

She raised her brow. “You do?”

“It is to marry.”

Miki’s features became a cool mask. “Oh?”

“Yes,” The prince smiled in victory. “It is to marry a prince and become a great princess, worthy of a fairy-tale ending.”

Miki visibly relaxed. “You are wrong, Prince Saito. I do wish to marry, but not for the reasons you suggest.”

“What other reasons could there be?”

Miki smiled, but did not answer his question.

“Then you are a fool.” The prince frowned and glanced at her father. “And I am lucky so as to not marry such a foolish woman.”

He stormed off back to the kingdom from which he came.

Miki closed her eyes as her father embraced her. “You did it, child.” He kissed her forehead and stepped back. “That was very clever of you, but I have to ask. What was the answer to your question?”

Then suddenly, everything became clear. “I’ll tell you the answer.” Shiro stepped away from the bamboo plant. “But when I answer the question correctly, you must allow Miki to take my hand in marriage.”

“You do not have to marry him if you don’t want to,” her father said. “Shiro was not part of the deal.”

Miki smiled at her father and patted his hand. “No, if Shiro can answer the question, then I will marry him.” She turned to face him. “Tell me, what is my heart’s greatest desire?”

He approached Miki, taking sure, measured steps as his eyes locked with hers. “You’re greatest wish is to marry, but not for the reasons the prince believed.”

Her smile widened. “And tell me Shiro, what are my reasons?”

He stopped only inches away from her. “You want to marry someone who challenges your mind and speaks to your heart. You want to marry not for money, or power, or political connections, but for love. And not the fairy-tale kind of love, because that always ends the story. You wish the strong, enduring love that grows from years of being together and sharing each others hearts. That kind of love does not end a story, but begins it.”

Miki’s smile lit up the whole room. “You are correct, Shiro. That is my heart’s greatest desire.”

Her father laughed as he pulled away from his daughter. “Well, I guess that settles it, then.”

“Yes, it does.” Shiro took Miki’s hands in his, and knelt before her. “Miki, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Their gazes met, and Shiro saw all of his love mirrored back at him in her gaze. “Yes, I will marry you.”

Joy burst from his chest. Shiro stood, wrapped his arms around her hips, and lifted her into the air. She laughed and grabbed his shoulders as he spun her around the room.

“You have made me a happy man, my beautiful Miki,” he said as he put her back onto the ground.

Miki’s face flushed, and her silver eyes glowed with happiness. “And you have granted me my heart’s desire.”

Shiro knew that it was improper for a man to kiss an unmarried woman in front of her father, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He had too much happiness to keep it all inside. He didn’t think that her father would mind his emotional outburst. After all, Miki wouldn’t remain unmarried for much longer.

The End

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After over a decade in the scientific world, Suzanne needed a creative outlet. She tried scrap booking, cooking, crocheting, painting, and piano, none of which held her interest for very long. Then one of her friends suggested writing. Thrilled with the idea of creating her own worlds, she opened up her lap top and never looked back.

When Suzanne’s not writing, she can be found playing with her two daughters, testing her husband’s latest kitchen creations, or curled up with her favorite romance novel in her central
Massachusetts home.

Website: www.SuzanneRock.com

Pairing: m/f, erotic (capture/bondage)

Length: Novella

Price: $3.49


Buy Link:


http://www.eredsage.com/store/HonorBound.html


Blurb:


Deep in the Hidaka Mountains, Akito is commissioned to capture the goddess of desire. He expects to use all of his samurai skills to complete the task. What he doesn't expect is the resurrection of his deceased lover, or the number of immortals who wish them both dead.


Condemned to an eternity of loneliness, Jin curses the day the mother goddess tricked her into becoming immortal. When a seasoned samurai enters her prison, she’s determined to build the man’s desire so she can harness enough strength to break the bonds that tie her to the mountain. As the intruder makes himself known, memories long buried rise to the surface and Jin becomes desperate for Akito to believe the truth – that she is his beloved. Can she earn his trust in time, or will they both succumb to the forces that strive to keep them apart?


video

Reader Alert!: This story contains a dominating samurai, a sexually frustrated goddess, and enough rope to bind them both together for eternity.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Birds of Calm by Kelley Heckart

Ceyx and Alcyone is one of my favorite Greek myths. I think the reason I love this story so much is because even death could not break them part.
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Blurb: Is it too late for a second chance at love?

Rating: PG-13
Genre: Greek mythology, Paranormal, Contemporary
Heat Level: Sweet

Michelle awoke to a rolling sensation and the piercing cries of a sea bird. Her head throbbed with a splitting headache strengthened by the bird’s shrill cries. Pressing her hands to her head, she let out a moan. The bird grew silent. The throbbing in her head eased.

She remained on her back and listened to the sound of waves lapping against the rubber raft. Her memory gradually returned, crawling through the fog that clouded her mind. Dread tightened her chest. She wanted to curl up into a fetal position and forget that she was lost at sea.

The sea bird made a sudden dive toward the raft, barely missing her head.

She sat up and glared at the bird, then recalled that birds usually stayed close to land. Nothing but open sea surrounded her small inflatable boat. The clear blue skies and tranquil water looked just like the enticing pictures on the brochure of the Greek Islands, no trace of the sudden, violent storm lingered. The bird landed on the edge of the raft. “Crazy bird,” she muttered and slumped down inside the life raft.

Huddling inside the small boat, she tried to remember how she ended up in the life raft. What she couldn’t forget was the image of her husband being swallowed by the churning waves. That image would be imprinted in her memory forever or for as long as she lived floating out to sea without food or water.

She touched her left hand in an unconscious gesture and her third finger was bare. My wedding ring! Then she realized that she had taken the ring off a month ago. She squinted up at the blazing sun and licked her dry, cracked lips.

“Michelle.”

She jerked her head up at the sound of her husband’s voice. Empty space greeted her inside the raft. I will never see Rick again, ever. The dreadful thought brought a lingering ache to her chest. She couldn’t breathe for a moment. Again, she saw him taken by the sea in the sudden storm that sank the boat. He was gone. Forever.

She hunched over in the raft, weeping. She sensed the bird moving closer to her. The peculiar bird was a calming presence that helped ease her sorrow and loneliness.

“Michelle, let’s go on this vacation and try to work things out.”

“No. Get out of my head,” she said, pressing her hands against the sides of her aching head. She couldn’t bear to think about him, not now. Not after wanting to leave him after twenty years of marriage because she was bored and needed some excitement in her life.

“Well, I have some excitement now, don’t I?” she shouted. The empty sea rolled all around her, seeming to mock her stupidity with gentle, chiding waves. The bird remained sitting next to her, unfazed by her sudden outburst.

“I love you, Michelle.”

Rick had said those words to her the night before in their hotel room. After he had made love to me.

She recalled how he had held her in his arms, how he’d kissed her with tenderness and the way he looked at her with unabashed, honest affection. In his familiar, comforting arms, she had felt something again. His passionate, knowing kisses had rekindled the desire she thought she’d lost. That excitement she craved so much only needed to be nurtured with a change of scenery to blossom—not by leaving Rick.

Now she would never hear his voice, or his laughter, or feel his kisses and caresses again.

The sea called to her, lulling her with its promise of a quick release from all the unbearable pain. Rick was out there somewhere. The anguish of losing him drove her to the edge of the raft. “I’m coming to join you,” she whispered. She struggled to push herself up over the edge and into the water’s dark, soothing embrace, but she lacked the strength.

A wave of dizziness hit her. The sky appeared to spin above her, and she fainted.

A sharp jab woke her. The sea bird stood on her shoulder and stared at her, letting out a shrill cry. Startled by the bird’s sudden cry, Michelle sat up. “Leave me alone,” she said, waving the bird away. “I just want to sleep.” And never wake up.

The bird had unusual coloring, slate blue, she decided, remembering the color from her paint palette. The brightly colored blue and white bird wouldn’t move. It kept staring at her and making a loud, annoying squawk, its long black beak opening and closing, its shaggy crest bobbing with each head movement. The bird appeared to be flapping one wing as if pointing toward something.
She looked up and peered across the vast sea. A hill loomed before her. It took a moment for her to gain her senses enough to realize what she was seeing across the ocean. Land.

“Oh my God!” Seeing land filled her with motivation to try and survive. She positioned herself on her knees so that she could use the paddle to hopefully bring her raft closer to the land. After paddling until she couldn’t move her arms anymore, she collapsed back into the inflatable boat, and retreated into her dark thoughts. The thought of living without Rick filled her with overwhelming grief and hopelessness. Tears blurred her vision. She closed her eyes. “I love you,” she murmured.

The bird let out more loud cries and flew away.

Sometime later, Michelle felt the rush of wings. “Leave me alone,” she muttered, opening her eyes. The bird sat on the edge of the raft, staring at her. She sensed the bird wanted her to look up. Something filled the space that before had been nothing but ocean. Something big. She had to blink a few times to clear her eyes.

A large boat filled the darkening horizon.

She waved her arms and shouted.

The boat turned toward her. She thought she saw two birds, but her vision dimmed, her eyes losing focus. Weak and exhausted, she collapsed into the raft and lost consciousness.

She woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by computer monitors. She moved her left arm and felt the tug of an I.V. line.

“Michelle?”

She thought she heard Rick’s voice, and then he was bending over the bed. “Rick?”

He smiled and touched her right hand. His large hand covered her hand in warmth and tender strength. She remembered that the first thing she’d noticed about him when they first met were his hands. He’d been playing guitar and his hands moved fluidly up and down, strumming, forming chords and playing notes on the fret board of his guitar. He had long fingers—musician’s hands, she had told him.

She couldn’t believe Rick stood over her, that he was alive. “I thought you drowned,” she said, feeling tears on her cheeks.  

He gently wiped her tears. “I would have drowned, but the ocean suddenly calmed, and this bird kept bugging me so that I stayed conscious. I think the bird led me to a ship, then we found you.” He shook his head. “It was the strangest thing.”

“A bird?” She recalled the bird that wouldn’t leave her side. “You said a bird was with you?”

He nodded.

“What did it look like?”

“It was blue, I think, or more like blue-gray and white,” he paused as if recalling the bird, “and had this funny looking crest.”

Slate blue. Her skin prickled, causing a quick shudder. “There was a bird with me, too,” she said. “I was ready to give up and then this bird wouldn’t leave me alone.” She wondered if it was the same bird or were there two birds? She didn’t think one bird could have been in two places at once. Then she recalled how she thought she saw two birds right before she passed out.

His eyes widened. “The stories must be true then.”

“What stories?”

Brushing a strand of hair from her forehead, he said, “When I mentioned the bird to the ship captain, he said that there is an ancient Greek myth about kingfishers, that’s what he called the bird, and that other people have reported being saved by these birds.”

“That’s odd,” she said. Feeling a sudden rush of fatigue, she pressed her head back into the pillow.

“You need to rest,” he said, kissing her cheek. “I will be here when you wake up.”

The warmth of his lips and his familiar, pleasing scent filled her with overwhelming joy and she felt more tears building. One tear escaped. “Promise?” she mumbled, afraid that if she went to sleep, he would disappear.

He kissed her tear-stained cheek, drying the lone tear with his tender kisses. “I promise,” he said, tucking the blankets around her. 

Reassured by his promise and his soothing kisses, she closed her eyes and fell into a deep slumber. She woke up sometime later to a dimly lit hospital room.

Rick was asleep on the bed, facing her, his head resting against her shoulder. He stirred and a black velvet ring box slipped from his hand. She realized he must have planned on proposing to her again on this trip. Touched by his romantic gesture, tears filled her eyes. She pressed the ring box back into his hand and snuggled against her husband, comforted by his presence. She was content to watch him sleep, wondering how she could have been so stupid.  

She hit something hard with her leg and discovered a book resting between them on the bed. Curious, she picked up the book, a collection of Greek myths. She opened the book to a page marked with a bookmark. Ceyx and Alcyone, The Birds of Calm. She read the story of two people that loved each other so much even death couldn’t break them apart. The gods were kind and turned them into sea birds, kingfishers.

She peered closely at the picture in the book of a pair of kingfishers. The brightly colored slate blue and white female bird had a long black beak and crested head just like the bird that wouldn’t leave her alone. Though the male’s coloring wasn’t as bright as the female’s plumage, they shared the same coloring and shaggy crest.

A slow shiver crept up her spine and she continued reading the last paragraph in a quiet, stunned whisper, “To make up for the violent storms that drowned Ceyx, each winter the sea is calm for seven days while the birds watch over their floating nests. The phenomenon is called Alcyon or Halcyon days. Some believe that the birds have the power to calm the seas.” She looked up, her gaze resting on her sleeping husband. Recalling how the two kingfishers had saved them, she wondered if the gods had also made the two birds immortal.

She closed the book, smiling faintly. “Thank you, Ceyx and Alcyone, for giving us another chance,” she whispered.
********************

Kelley writes Celtic historical romances with fantasy/paranormal elements. Her stories reflect her passion for history, storytelling and the supernatural. Inspired by the ancient Celts, her tales are filled with fierce warriors, bold women, magic, conflict and romance.

Kelley Heckart
'Timeless tales of romance, conflict & magic'
http://kelleysrealm.blogspot.com/ Check out my long hair hotties!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Safe Tonight by Lydia Nyx

Hello everyone, I'm Lydia Nyx and I'm kicking off the Myth, Legends, and Fairy Tales round!


The legend I chose is more of an 'urban' legend: the Victorian London monster known as Spring Heeled Jack. I'm fascinated by the Victorian period, and while Spring Heeled Jack was regarded as everything from a clever prankster in disguise to a demon, I thought it would be fun to portray him as a real supernatural creature. I'm quite fond of the spooky stuff--if you're familiar with my work you probably already know this!


I've always thought it would be fun to write a story about some sort of Victorian 'ghost busters' keeping London's streets safe from evil. And even better if they have a sordid past (and future) together!


******

Luther Heppenstall has returned to London to help his old friend Mathias Adderly rid Peckham's streets of the demon known as Spring Heeled Jack. However, in the aftermath of Jack's defeat, Luther has to face some old demons from his past as well.


Rated: PG-13 (for mentions of violence)
Genre: Historical, Paranormal
Heat Level: Sweet






Beyond the window in front of which Luther Heppenstall stood, gas lamps along Rye Laneburned as tiny beacons in the thick winter gloom. The world outside was layered in white, hiding the filth of Peckham's streets. Though the sights beyond the window were common, a sense of reality Luther had lost two days previous was yet to return to him. Once he'd stepped through the veil to the other, stranger side, the everyday mundane became unfamiliar to him.

"Is your trunk packed?" Mathias asked.

Luther could see Mathias' reflection in the glass, transparent, superimposed over the craggy gray skyline.

"Yes," Luther replied. "You have been most gracious to me. Your hospitality was remarkable, I shall not forget it."

Mathias' reflection stepped closer. "I only wish your stay here had been less traumatic."

"We did a good deed, disposing of that foul demon. Most of London may never know or understand, but they'll be safer."

Such was the fate of those who worked in the shadows, unknown and unsung. And how had it come to be?

In the early months of that year 1838, a dreadful pall had fallen over London, bleaker than the winter skies and more bone-chilling than the icy wind which blew from the north. The Lord Mayor himself took reluctantly to the papers to confirm the situation: the Devil walked among the good people, in the form of a clawed, flame-breathing, leaping monster called Spring Heeled Jack.

Of most good fortune then was the dominant presence in London of Mr. Mathias Adderly, eradicator of all dark forces. Until that fateful winter, his expertise in all matters spiritual and ghastly had been confined to ridding homes of spirits, communicating with the dead through séance, and chasing those smaller imps and demons of the Old Master back into the shadows. This foe being much bigger and more cunning, he had called upon another expert--Luther himself, for they had worked together before and combined were a potent force.

"I hope your journey home is a safe one," Mathias said. "If I can give you any blessing or charm to assure it, you need only ask."

Tomorrow morning Luther would leave London and return to Berkshire, hopefully to never return. Though he had come to the great city with the same skepticism he usually approached his work with, his world had been shaken.

"No blessing or charm," Luther said. "Haste is what I desire."

Luther turned from the window, cold clinging to his hands and face. Silence fell, broken only by the crackle of the fire on the hearth.

Mathias hadn't changed much in the three years since Luther had last seen him. He stood taller than Luther by six inches, thin and narrow-shouldered; his almond-shaped eyes and fine bone structure made him look both delicate and youthful. His dark hair fell in tousled waves across his forehead and curled haphazardly around his shirt collar. Though a gentleman, he always seemed unkempt. Mathias didn't care for modern fashion and kept himself two steps behind the world's constantly-updating sense of propriety. For this, Luther had always admired him.

"I was afraid he would kill you in those final moments," Mathias finally said, and the softened tone of his voice made Luther's stomach clench, bringing up memories long buried. "Though it's not the first time I've seen a demon in the flesh, I truly expected a prankster, nothing more."

Jack, they thought, was a clever charlatan or madman in disguise. Many times in their separate but equal lines of work chasing demons and night creatures they uncovered such truths. Jack had been the real thing though, the genuine force they had committed their lives to fighting. Though the monster had mainly confined himself to frightening women and plaguing travelers, when faced with opposition he revealed his true nature and turned from merely bothersome to deadly.

"And I expected a ruse as well," Luther said. "But we are alive, if tattered. And it was good to see you again."

Mathias gazed steadily at him, and those memories Luther unwittingly allowed to come forth seemed visceral, a thing wrapped around him. He had long tried to ignore such feelings but now he couldn't, not while looking at that somber, beguiling visage.

"I hesitated to write you," Mathias said. "I didn't know if you would come."

"You must understand I will always be your friend. I wouldn't have said no."

"I will be unhappy to see you go."

"I will be unhappy to leave, for certain reasons. But joyous for the more obvious ones."

Luther wished he could get home quicker, but he didn't want to face the night on the road. Paranoia crept in with the darkness like a monster slithering out from under a child's bed. When he looked into the black, he saw hollow red eyes and a gaunt face cut by shadows, a leering demon hovering above him with a smile like a skull. He could only think of being chased through the streets and the flash of blue flame and click of iron claws. His shoulder and side ached constantly, as if to assure he didn't forget those talons breaking his skin while being held down and brought to the edge of oblivion.

"Why don't you come back to Berkshire with me?" Luther asked, as though the idea had just come to him, when in actuality he'd been building up to asking Mathias the question from the moment they knew they were safe. "You need a respite from this place."

"I can't," Mathias replied. "I must stay and keep guard for other demons that might terrorize the populace. Protect them, as I did you." In addition to the other terrors which plagued his memory, Luther would never forget the blast of the gun, or the feel of warm, sticky blood and the weight of a slick body slumping on top of him. "They need me," Mathias said."What would I do in Berkshire anyway?"

"I don't know." Luther realized as soon as he uttered the words he should have tried harder to make an argument. He had spent too much time not speaking to Mathias, trying to forget him and at the same time always remembering him.

"You're going back to your simple imps and specters. And it's safer for you there." Mathias smoothed his hands over his waistcoat and righted it. "Come, let's have a drink in the parlor before you retire. It'll help you sleep easier tonight."

"I think I should need quite a few drinks to achieve that."

"I have an entire bottle, it's no worry."

***

They had a drink—several drinks on Luther's part—in the parlor, because Luther didn't want to retire to the darkness of his bedchamber with all his senses. The pain from his sutured cuts was eased by the liquor as well. Truly, he ached more from the grave they'd dug. Disposing of the foul corpse in consecrated ground assured it would not rise again to terrorize London's streets.

"I felt safe with you by my side, as in the old days," Luther said, sitting in a chair by the fire. "Even though I thought you were mad when I first met you, chasing demons and hunting ghosts. But through you I learned there is much beyond our sensible understanding of the world. You taught me all I know about keeping myself protected from what lurks in the night."

Mathias grunted. "I think there is still much to learn. Your wounds would say so."

"Ah, there is. Each year I learn the Devil has many cards in his deck. Many times I thought to write you for advice, or to tell you of something new I had found."

"It was the same with me."

"We should not have lost each other as we did."

"Perhaps not."

"So why did we?"

Mathias put his glass aside and there seemed a heaviness to his movements, to his very demeanor. "We let too many personal affairs come in the way of our work," he said, without looking at Luther. "It was better we went on to our own fortunes."

"You have not married," Luther said.

"Nor you."

"I suppose the nature of our work makes it too dangerous to have wives and families. I wouldn't want to expose anyone I cared for to the thing we battled."

Mathias said nothing. They sat in silence for a while, Luther staring into the fire, Mathias staring toward the window. A queer sickness twisted in Luther's stomach, an odd longing for something he couldn't name.

"We should retire soon," Mathias said.

"Yes." Luther finished off his glass. He didn't feel any more prepared to face the night.

"I'm sorry," Mathias said. "For everything."

Luther looked at him and smiled. Maybe the drink had gone to his head, but he thought maybe, just for a second, he saw something tender under Mathias' turgid exterior, something of the young and vital man he used to be, before he saw too much of what lurked in the shadows.

Luther rose from his chair. "Walk with me up to my room?"

"Of course."

Mathias led him by a candle up the stairs. He kept no house staff. He had never been a man to have others do things for him.

When they reached the landing, Mathias looked at Luther and in the flickering light his expression was deeply serious, stern and oddly protective. He reached over and tugged the collar of Luther's shirt aside. Luther looked down, a flush creeping across his cheeks.

"How are the wounds coming?" Mathias asked, indicating the beginning of the bandages just below Luther's collarbone.

"They have their moments." Luther lifted his chin, the back of Mathias' hand touching his neck, warmth radiating from his skin. Luther had the inane urge to nuzzle his wrist.

"Legend says if a supernatural creature attacks you, some of their power becomes yours forever," Mathias said.

Luther huffed. "I'm glad it's only legend. I don't fancy the power to leap over walls or spit flames."

"It can be reversed however, if you're bathed in holy water and blessed."

"If it's all the same, I think I shall take my chances. I'd rather heal before anyone goes bathing and blessing me. I've suffered enough pain."

Mathias still held Luther's collar aside. The cold air in the stairwell rushed inside his shirt and he shivered.

"Are you going off to bed now?" Luther asked.

Mathias stepped forward and to Luther's surprise, lowered his face to Luther's shoulder. Luther flinched reflexively. He felt the warm press of Mathias' mouth over the bandage for a brief moment, and then Mathias lifted his head and stepped back. Luther stared at him, heart racing.

"That will do for now," Mathias said, seemingly unruffled.

Luther continued to stare at him, unable to speak.

"And," Mathias said, "I'd like to come to Berkshire sometime, I suppose."

Luther swallowed and nodded.

"You ought to retire," Mathias said. "My old, dear friend."

***

Luther sat up in the darkness of his room and looked toward the window, a dull glow emanating from the lamps reflecting on the snow in the street below. No candle glowed at his bedside tonight. He hadn't been woken by a nightmare, either. In fact, he'd slept soundly for the first time since meeting up with Spring Heeled Jack. Only the pain in his shoulder had pulled him out of rest.

He winced and rubbed the sutures, shoulder bare as he'd taken the bandage off to give the wound some air. He pushed back the blankets and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The room was icy as there was no fire in the hearth. He found the chamber pot, relieved himself of the evening's intake of alcohol, and walked back to the bed. He winced again as he sat on the mattress and put his hand to his shoulder, the ache sharp and insistent. As he turned to lie down again he felt wetness on his fingertips and groaned.

A warm hand encircled his wrist and a soft voice said from the other side of the bed, "Is it still hurting?"

"It's bleeding again."

He felt a shifting on the mattress and then an arm reached around him. A wet cloth was pressed into his hand, once warm, now cold. Luther put the rag to his shoulder and emitted a soft hiss, but the coolness made the burning stop and he felt better at once.

"You ought to have some laudanum," Mathias said as he gently eased Luther back on the pillows. Luther settled down and Mathias draped the heavy blankets over him. "I'll send for some from the chemist in the morning."

"I can handle the pain," Luther said. "In time it will pass and only the right we did here shall remain. London is safe." He paused. "It will be even safer with both of us here."

"You're certain of your decision to stay?"

"I'm not at all certain, and even less certain I'll enjoy it here. But you--you are more reason to stay than any demon or trickster." Luther thought about the place he had called home these last few years, and for the first time, he realized how lonely he'd been there, how much he'd ached. Not for another place, but a person.

Under the warmth of the blankets Mathias rested his hand on Luther's lower belly, and Luther felt the brush of Mathias' bare thigh against his hip. Luther understood their lives would become complicated with the need for secrecy and discreetness, even though their situation seemed completely simple there in the darkness. It was love, simply, as it always had been, and Luther had always been so afraid of it, more afraid of the things within him than without.

Luther still ached from the things they'd done a few hours before in the name of that love, the things that had probably led to the loosening of his sutures, but he didn't mind.

"I'll learn to love London," Luther said softly. "As I do you and always have."

"I suppose I ought to thank Spring Heeled Jack," Mathias murmured. "He brought you back to me."

"Perhaps then, he was more angel than demon."

THE END

*****************

Lydia Nyx is a gay romance and erotica author, also specializing in urban fantasy and a little bit of horror. She is published with Torquere Press, Dreamspinner Press, Noble Romance Publishing, Freaky Fountain Press, and later this year, with Storm Moon Press and Lillibridge Press (she's everywhere!). She usually likes and writes paranormal and dark things, but also occasionally writes some happy, light, non-spooky stuff. Check out her website for her full list of current and upcoming titles: www.lydianyx.com

You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LiveJournal

Her next release from Torquere Press will be supporting the It Gets Better Project, all royalties going to the charity. Please check it out!