Ebook Excerpt Readings

Hi everyone!

For those of you who aren’t following me on social media, my ebooks (In the Dark and Asta and the Barbarians) are 50% off through Smashwords for the entire month of July. To get everyone hyped, I’ve been using Instagram Stories to share excerpt readings from these two books. I update my Stories every Thursday morning, alternating from In the Dark to Asta and the Barbarians. I posted the final excerpt reading for In the Dark today and plan to do one more reading of Asta and the Barbarians next Thursday. I’ve also posted two excerpt readings on Youtube so no one has to miss out, but if people like the idea of tuning in every Thursday on Instagram, I’d be more than happy to continue doing readings until I finish Chapter One of each book. My publisher, Tirgearr Publishing, has given me permission to post that much. Let me know in the comments if anyone would be interested in that.

These excerpt readings were actually my publisher’s idea. It’s not something that’s done very often and they wanted to try something new so they suggested it to all of their authors. I was apprehensive at first because I’m camera shy but also a bit self-conscious about how I read. Despite that, I thought I should try. I’ve never gone to a live reading; for one, I never know when and where they’re happening and, once I do find out, it’s always somewhere far away from where I live. I think it would be awesome to be able to watch a video of one of my favorite authors reading an excerpt from their book for FREE so I thought I’d at least give you guys the option.

I hope you get the chance to check out my Instagram Stories or at least watch one of the readings on Youtube. If there’s enough of an interest, I can read from my other books and share them on Instagram too. 🙂 Remember, the Smashwords ebook sale will be over in 9 days so grab a copy of whichever book strikes your fancy while they’re only $2.49!

Death’s Curses Excerpt

Hey everyone!

I’m hurting for some good feedback.

As you know, my sister and I have been working on a young adult urban fantasy type story about Charlie and Jasmine (a pair of twins that were cursed by Death), and a tough-as-nails rebel from Boston named Esmeralda. The story is told from all three perspectives, with diary entries from a third mysterious party thrown in (it all comes together in the end, trust me). This is the first time my sister and I have tried writing something together as opposed to just brainstorming story ideas or giving each other suggestions for our current works in progress. The genre is also something neither of us has tried writing.

Naturally, we’re a bit self-conscious and uncertain about the quality of the story. I think we’re doing pretty good considering our inexperience, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you guys think! Your feedback is invaluable to our process. Won’t you let us know how we’re doing?

Some things we want to know: Does the story make sense? Are the characters likeable, relateable, semi-believeable? Are there any cliche parts? Can you hear four different and distinct “voices” while reading or does one character’s “voice” sound too similar to another? Is the plot engaging? Is there anything you want to see more of (dialogue, setting description, etc)?

Keep in mind that this is a first draft. We’re more than willing to change things that don’t work but we need to know what those things are first. Here is the first diary entry and the first chapter to get you started. Enjoy!

**A note to my more conservative readers: Esmeralda is a complicated kid. She smokes, swears, and behaves disrespectfully. She might come off as offensive or abrasive at first but she does mature and find healing by the end of the story. If you’ll bear with her, I’m sure you’ll come to love her, jagged edges and all.**


April 11th, 1718

What is time? Is it merely an instrument to dictate the passing of years? Is it the friend that reminds us of who we once were? Is it the soothing doctor who erases deep hurts and covers them with protective scabs? Or is it something far more sinister?

I have been dwelling on the question of late. I thought I knew the answer once. Now, there is no way to tell for certain.

I’ve lived longer than I look. I was born when time was recorded differently. It has been too long since we visited our roots. Our home no longer exists, for our people died out centuries ago. Even the land itself has changed. We are all that survived that race, my Jerebald and myself. Adelina and Zebded still live as well, but they have forgotten where we came from. They have new aliases to hide their heritage. They are always amalgamating with the passing time. Meriabey and Frases only laugh whenever we mention home. They don’t realize how truly wondrous it was and how foolishly we discarded it.

The only reason I am recording my thoughts at all is because I no longer feel safe confiding in my comrades. Jerebald understands, for he has always understood me. The others used to, but in this last decade or so, I have noticed the change. My friends are not who they once were. Sometimes I look at them, listening to the words they utter, but find no trace of my beloved friends anywhere. Our views differ where once they were akin. It frightens me to think that we may not last together another decade.

We all chose this life. We all made the pact. We all swore an oath to be together forever. But forever has taken a toll on us. I fear it will be our doom. Us; the immortals. Our greatest desire, our greatest triumph, could be our undoing.

Again, I return to the question. What is time? It is the handler of change, a force of destruction, like a river beating relentlessly against an immovable stone. Our friendship, once immovable, once strong, once indestructible, has met its match.

….

Esmeralda

I threw the door open to the boys’ restroom, skidded to a halt just inside, and fell back against the door. Straining my ears to hear over the pounding of my heart, I bit back a smile.

“What kind of sicko hides in the boys’ bathroom?” Randi said, her voice warped with disgust.

“She can’t stay in there forever,” Karen said. “Let’s wait around. A boy’s bound to go in and kick her out.”

“We’ll see about that.” I glanced at the guy standing at the urinal, giving me an incredulous look over his shoulder. “Hey. How’s it going?”

Despite his surprise, his voice was calm. “I was trying to take a piss before some girl decided to come barreling in.”

“I’m not some girl. I’m Esmer.”

The boy scoffed. “What kind of name is that?”

“The name a couple of gypsies thought would be cool,” I said with barely suppressed annoyance. “What did you get saddled with?”

The boy sighed heavily and zipped up his pants, apparently giving up. “Charlie.”

I rolled my eyes. “Congratulations. You’re one of the lucky few with an average name these days.”

Charlie flushed the urinal and turned. He was shorter than I was but not by much. He was pale, with brown eyes, thick lashes, and dark skater hair that curled out from under his backwards ball cap. There was a skateboard strapped onto his plain black backpack.

Not bad, I couldn’t help but think.

Charlie gave me the once over with a quizzical look on his face. “The fact that I’ve never seen you before suggests you’re new but your clothes tell me you’re a native.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, pushing away from the door. The black cotton skirt I wore ruffled lightly around my ankles as I moved.

“Does your shirt really need a vest?”

My eyes narrowed. “Who died and made you the fashion police?”

Charlie shrugged and went over to the sink to wash his hands. “I’m just trying to figure out how the ensemble works in your mind. The combat boots are a little out of place, if you ask me.”

“Nobody did ask you, but if you must know my dad was a marine. He gave me these.”

Charlie paused for a moment, eying my boots through the mirror. “Okay, that’s pretty dope. Any particular reason you’re here or do you just enjoy making strangers uncomfortable?”

“Who doesn’t enjoy making strangers uncomfortable? Watching them struggle for words is hilarious.”

Charlie shook off the excess water from his hands and then reached for a paper towel. “Who’d you piss off?”

I snorted. “Some chick named Randi. I didn’t know I needed to be initiated into her gang before I could smoke with them. I thought it was a pretty stupid rule and told her that her haircut made her look like a dude. I guess she didn’t appreciate my constructive criticism.”

Charlie chuckled. “Yeah, the boys’ bathroom is probably the safest place for you right now.”

“I figured.” Opening the door a crack, I dared to peek out.

One of the security guards was talking to Randi and her posse. Randi pointed at the boys’ bathroom.

“Shit.” I hurried away from the door, messenger bag slapping the backs of my thighs.

Charlie watched me with mild curiosity. “What’re you doing?”

“I’m not here!” I walked into a stall, locked the door, and stood on the toilet seat.

The security guard came into the restroom several moments later. “Curnble.”

“Sir?” Charlie said.

“Have you seen a girl come in here? She’s about 5’10, has short orange-red hair and a nose piercing?”

“No, sir. It’s just me in here.”

The security guard must’ve believed him because he soon left.

I unlocked the stall and came out. “Thanks.”

Charlie backed out of the room with a smirk. “Welcome to Green Bay Prep.” Then he was gone.

I glanced at my reflection and ran a hand through my fiery red hair. Heavy eyeliner and eye shadow made my green eyes pop.

Yeah, he thought I was hot.

Another guy walked in and froze when he saw me. “Um…This is the boys’ restroom.”

I frowned. “I am a boy.”

The stranger blinked several times before slowly backing out. I chuckled to myself and followed.

 

I ate lunch outside the library. The fact that I was eating my cheeseburger like a Neanderthal discouraged anyone from joining me on the bench. War and Peace sat in my lap. People gave me strange looks in passing, but those were easy to ignore. As the new kid in a small private school, I knew I was going to attract attention. At my old public school it had been easier to blend in. There were more freaks, Goths, and wanna-be gangsters to hide behind. There was just Randi and her gang, and a group of skaters who got together behind the cafeteria at this place.

How’s a girl to survive in this preppy purgatory? I thought with a sigh.

The sound of skateboard wheels along the sidewalk made me perk up. What were the chances that was Charlie? So far, my pit stop to the boys’ bathroom had been the most interesting part of my day. Maybe he could rescue me from this boring book I was pretending to read. Unfortunately, it was just one of the guys from the skateboard clique, trying to impress a group of giggling girls huddled together in the courtyard. I slumped back against the bench and frowned down at the book.

I might not be so desperate for good conversation if I had my phone. Man, I miss that thing!

The school was small enough. I was bound to have at least one class with the only guy worth talking to at this place…

 

And I did. Seventh period art class. Charlie rushed in five minutes late and had a brief conversation with the teacher. He looked irritated and a little worried. The teacher’s brow furrowed, but she nodded and assured him that he wouldn’t lose his place in the class. Charlie thanked her before rushing out of the room.

I watched the exchange with rapt attention. Getting permission to skip out of class on the first day of school? This guy just got more interesting.

Now that he was gone, the teacher proceeded to introduce the class to the projects we’d be doing this year. What a snore fest.

The only reason I signed up for this class was because I needed one more elective to graduate and my options had been limited. My move to Seattle had been very last minute; most of the classes had already been filled by the time I got here. It had been this or choir. I thought I had chosen the lesser of two evils. (I loved listening to music but I couldn’t sing to save my life.) Now, I was starting to think I was wrong. Fifty minutes later, the bell rang and I was free.

Well, not really…

Great Aunt Dinah’s graying Cadillac was waiting for me just outside the school’s main entrance.

If I cared about what my rich, spoiled peers thought of me, I might’ve been embarrassed.

“Not that I give a damn, but how was your first day of school?” she barked once I’d opened the door.

Aunt Dinah was the crotchety cat lady that darkened her neighborhood. She didn’t just frown; she scowled. She was too proud to wear glasses. Her squinting made her look like she disapproved of everything and everyone, which wasn’t far from the truth. She always wore her white hair in a bun. I doubted she even let her hair down to sleep. Oh, and she never left the house without her fluffy pink slippers.

I slammed the door closed, dropped my book bag by my feet, and said nothing.

“Sorry to hear that,” Aunt Dinah said as we pulled away from the school. She didn’t sound very sorry. “There are plenty of chores waiting for you at the house to take your mind off of things.”

I glared out at the window at the cars and buildings we passed. “I have a lot of homework to do.”

“Which you can do after your chores. You’re a smart girl. I’m sure you’ll manage your time wisely.”

I slouched in my seat because I knew it would bother her. “You give me too much credit. I was banished to live with you for the year after all.”

“Sit up straight. You might have made poor decisions in your personal life, but that doesn’t mean you’re incapable of balancing two projects.” She struggled with her turn signal. “Oh, I almost forgot. Your mother called this morning just after I dropped you off.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, yeah? What did she want?”

“To wish you a good first day and to send her love.”

I chewed on my lips, picturing the look on my mom’s face the night she had decided she’d had enough.

With exhausted tears in her eyes, she’d turned to her husband and said, “All right, Hunter. I give up. Deal with it your way.”

My stepdad had been more than happy to send me to his aunt in Seattle. He’d been itching to get rid of me since he moved in. He told my mom that Aunt Dinah would be able to teach me “a thing or two about discipline.” He assured my mom that I wouldn’t come back home the same “rebellious, stubborn child” I had been since my dad died. And that was all she’d needed to hear.

Despite the ache building around my throat, I forced a snort. “The guilt has probably settled in by now.”

“Your mother made the right choice,” Aunt Dinah said with confidence. “There is nothing for her to be guilty about.”

“Uprooting me from the only place I’ve ever lived just before my senior year of high school and forcing me to come to the other side of the country to live with a relative she’s never met doesn’t sound the least bit wrong to you? For all she knew, you could’ve been crazy, or an unstable old lady with Alzheimer’s, or a super neglectful person who would’ve let me starve to death!”

“Have some faith in your father, Esmeralda,” Aunt Dinah said, exasperated. “He wouldn’t have sent you to live with anyone who couldn’t handle taking care of you.”

I shook my head. “Hunter is not my father.”

Aunt Dinah pursed her lips. “He’s married to your mother, isn’t he? He deserves your respect.”

“The last time I checked, respect was earned.”

Dinah sighed as she pulled into the driveway of her ridiculous mansion. “I have my work cut out for me it would seem.”

I looked up at the house, dread making my stomach knot.

This monstrosity of brick and mortar had two stories with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a sitting room, a library, a kitchen separate from the dining room, a foyer large enough to comfortably fit a Hummer, and the biggest wooden staircase I had ever seen. Not to mention the attic and the wine cellar could have passed for third and fourth stories. The exterior sported ridiculous Corinthian columns and a second story porch with a wrought iron balustrade. The clapboard cladding had been painted blue years ago but was now so pale it was almost gray. The grounds were lush and green, having been trimmed and watered by Dinah that very morning. It was more space than anyone would ever need and it annoyed the hell out of me.

“Why can’t you live in an apartment in some retired folks’ center like a normal old person?”

“Not that it’s any of your business but this is my family’s estate. I’d rather it stay in the family.” She climbed out of the Cadillac and shut the door none too gently.

I followed my aunt up the walkway. “You didn’t think to hire a maid?”

“Maids are expensive. Aside from being mentally taxing, you’re free.” Aunt Dinah opened the front door and scowled over her shoulder at me. “Well, come on! It’s not going to clean itself.”

I gritted her teeth and suppressed a groan. I hate my effing life.


Interested in reading more? Click on the link below!
https://www.inkitt.com/beccafox

A second look at Asta and the Barbarians

We’re a little less than two weeks away from the publication date of my new adult fantasy, Asta and the Barbarians! You’re probably not nearly as stoked as I am but that’s okay. You just need another excerpt to get you interested. *wink wink* Here’s chapter two! Links to preorder will be available at the bottom of the page for anyone who’s interested. Thanks for stopping by!

 


 

Chapter Two

They came for me at dusk. I hadn’t attended the beginners’ classes as I was instructed. I had been warned of the consequences. Now, they were going to deliver. I had cried so much that day. I didn’t have the strength to be afraid. My guards watched the two members of the academy’s security team escort me down the hall. Heads poked out of the rooms. Soon we had a group of followers, students anxious to witness the first whipping of the general’s precious miracle. Down the stairs, out of the building, across the square, to the whipping post we went. They chained my hands to the post and retreated. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the young warriors gather. Some cheered. Some sneered insults my way.

Viggo stood at the front and smirked, arms crossed. And some simply peeked out of their bedroom windows. I recognized the sensible friend of that damned Viggo, watching from a second-story window. He was lean but strong, with a bushel of curly black hair. He leaned forward with his palms against his writing desk and looked down at me, brow furrowed in anxiety.

The director walked into my line of sight, dragging a cat-of-nine-tails behind him. Nails, bits of broken glass, jagged blades, and fish hooks had been attached to the ends of each tail. I stared at the thick splintery post before me and braced myself. There was a crack and then I was struck. The impact sent me to my knees. Countless bites of pain sank into my flesh. I grunted but didn’t cry out. Shutting my eyes, I leaned my forehead against the wood and took a deep breath. Then the director jerked the whip back. The tearing of clothing, skin, and muscle was audible.

The pain was excruciating. I screamed loud enough to sear my throat. Blood poured
down my backside and splashed against my calves. It was not so dissimilar from the blood that ran while the general tortured me. Instead of imagining I was in a different place as I did back then, I allowed the pain to rob me of my will to live. There was a second crack of the whip. Now that my nerves were exposed, the sharp ends sank in and took hold. I couldn’t breathe. The director tugged three times before the whip came free.

I trembled and let out a sob. The shouts and laughter of the spectators were blotted out by my heartbeat, pounding loudly in my sensitive ears. My vision began to fade. The third time those tails bit into my flesh, a sharp piece of something embedded itself at the nape of my neck. When the whip was pulled back, I felt the piece scrape against bone. I leaned heavily against the post, the splinters biting into my face. It didn’t matter. My back…

I’m coming, Mother, Father, Sylvi…

But death didn’t come. The whip didn’t strike a fourth time. The director shouted at the crowd to go back inside. My guards were given permission to unchain me. They carried me to my room and tossed me onto the bed, jarring every bone in my back. I pressed my face into the pillow and screamed.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” one of my guards said over my yells. “The number of lashes will increase if you decide to skip your classes a second time—and don’t think we’ve forgotten to tell the director about your death wish. He has half of the security team watching this building, your window especially.”

The door slammed shut and I was left to bleed alone.

“Father,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

My father seethed. “Sorry? The groundskeeper caught you in the cemetery with the stable boy, and you’re sorry?”

I rolled my eyes. “It was just a dare. Nothing happened.”

“You know it hasn’t been easy to arrange a suitable marriage for you,” my father growled as he paced the length of his study. “And now that I’ve finally found an honorable man who is willing to take you…” He rounded on me, dark eyes narrowed. “Do you think Kustaav will still want you after this story gets out?”

I leapt from the chair. “I don’t care if Kustaav still wants me! I’m not property to be signed and shaken hands over. I should have an opinion as to who I spend the rest of my life with.”

My father rose to his full height. “Your mother was married to me on her father’s command. Your friend Irma was married to that blacksmith one town over. Your sister is to be married to Torsten in three weeks. Every woman in this county marries who their fathers choose. What is so special about you that you alone are allowed an opinion in this matter?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but he continued before I could reply.

“Is it because your foolish father overlooked tradition and allowed you to attend school after the age of sixteen? Is it because your father looked the other way when you secretly began taking fencing lessons? Could it be that, by ignoring your lack of propriety, I made you believe you would be exempt from every rule of society?” My father snorted. “Well, I’m sorry but you are gravely mistaken.”

I clenched my jaw when my world grew misty.

My father ran a hand through his thinning hair and took a deep breath. “I’m going to speak to the stable boy tomorrow. He will no longer be a member of our household staff. He is never to talk to you again and you are never to seek him out.”

“His name is Fiske,” I said. “And he’s my friend.”

“I will smother any rumors that spread because of your thoughtlessness and beg Kustaav to take you,” my father said as if I hadn’t spoken. “You will personally apologize and assure him that you are still a virgin. You two will be married by next spring and you will no longer be my burden.”

I reared back as if I’d been slapped. “Is that all I am to you? A burden?”

The church bells tolled. My innards tightened. My father walked around his desk, eyes dark with worry. He yanked the curtains of the window aside and looked out. The study door burst open to reveal Sylvi and my mother.

“It’s happened, Canute,” my mother said, her voice choked by fear. “Heaven help
us!”

My father ambled toward them. “You know the plan. Pack only the essentials and head for the capitol.” My mother and sister made way for him to pass. He fetched the crossbow from its hooks on the wall and turned to give us a grim look. “Ride hard.”

Mother threw her arms around him. “Take care of yourself!”

“I will. I love you, Aulin.” He gave Sylvi a kiss on the forehead. “Be strong and take care of your mother.”

“Yes, Father,” she whimpered.

He turned to me but I refused to meet his gaze. “We will meet again.” Then he was gone.

 

My mother sobbed in the seat across from mine, red-brown curls bouncing over her shoulder slightly with every hiccup. Sylvi patted her back and murmured that Father would be all right. I leaned against the carriage’s small window, hoping to catch a glimpse of our home. I could hear the screams of panic as we thundered down the street. Our coachmen shouted at the horses. My town…I wanted to look away, but all I could do was gawk. Kenshore was being pillaged and burned. My people fled, taking only what they could carry with them. Some galloped beside us on horses. Some clutched their children to their chests and ran. And still the barbarian raiders gained on them.

The men of our town had been training since word of the crusade reached us five years ago. Traps had been set, weapons had been distributed, plans had been made. How were these foreign warriors already running rampant through our streets? Could it be that the rumors of their invincibility were true? Buildings burned. Swords sliced the air. Men were slaughtered in the streets. Women were dragged by their hair behind houses and into dark corners. Children were cut down where they stood without hesitation. I slapped a hand over my mouth to keep from vomiting.

Something struck the side of our carriage. The door I leaned against was thrown open and I was ejected into the horde of people with a shout. 

 

Men with eyes that glowed like liquid copper surrounded me when I woke. Men dressed in strange, form-fitting armor and carrying all manner of sharp weapons. I scrambled to my feet, tripping on the frayed trim of my dress and hastily brushing the hair out of my face. Their looks of hunger and vicious glee were replaced by shock and surprise.

“Gosta,” one murmured to his neighbor. “Look at her eyes.”

“You can still have her, Gosta,” another jeered. “The general need not know.”

My heart hammered painfully against my ribs. Were brown eyes special on their island? Could my eyes somehow save me?

The one called Gosta grimaced in disappointment. “The general always knows. Grab her.”

“It’s called medicine,” said a sarcastic voice from the other side of my door. “It will help dull the pain. It might even help her heal faster. I’m sure my father wants her in class as soon as possible. How do you think he’ll react when he hears you turned me away?”

“She’ll heal quickly enough,” one of my guards grunted. “She doesn’t need your medicine.”

“And if she has broken bones? If there has been lasting damage done to her spine? If an infection has spread? We’re impervious to most illnesses, but we aren’t completely immune. A physician has never set foot on the academy grounds. My father isn’t going to call one now, not even for Dotharr’s Miracle. I’ve helped numerous other warriors-in-training who have faced the whipping post. I’m the closest thing to a doctor she’s ever going to see.”

There was a moment of silence while the guards deliberated.

“The director already gave us permission,” another voice muttered.

The door opened.

I bolted upright in bed only to crumple back against the bloody sheets with a cry of agony.

Viggo and his sensible friend entered the room. I didn’t have the energy to be surprised, much less speak.

“I was handling it,” the young man whose name I didn’t know said under his breath.

“You were taking too long,” Viggo retorted.

I writhed in pain for a moment and curled up in a ball. “Go away.”

“As you wish,” Viggo said, stepping back.

His friend gave him a look of disapproval before smiling at me. “My name is Bryn. I’m an aspiring doctor, despite my glowing eyes. I can help you if you let me.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I sobbed. “I just want to die.”

Viggo rolled his eyes, but received an elbow to the gut before he could comment.

“Nobody is dying,” Bryn said. “At least not today.”

“It reeks in here,” Viggo grumbled. He stalked over to the window and yanked it open.

Bryn sat beside me on the bed and opened his satchel. “If it bothers you so much, why don’t you track down someone from Housekeeping and request some fresh bed sheets?”

“I’m not your errand boy!” Viggo snapped.

Bryn produced a rag, then continued rummaging through his bag. “Or you can stay here and breathe in the lovely smell of blood and oozing wounds. Do what you wish.”

Viggo simmered while Bryn selected a bottle and set his satchel aside. The aspiring doctor poured green liquid from the bottle over the rag before turning to me. “I need you to turn onto your stomach if you’re able.”

“It hurts to move,” I said with a sniffle.

Viggo threw his hands in the air and marched out of the room, grumbling under his breath.

“I’ll do what I can from this angle then,” Bryn said, then gently pressed the damp rag into my shoulder.

I bit my lips but still let out a whimper.

“I’m sorry. This will sting initially, but it will kick in after a few minutes.”

I shut my eyes and let the darkness take me.

 

I woke to an exasperated grunt. “You think your father will let you become a doctor after all our hard work?”

“All of my hard work, you mean?” It sounded as if Bryn were fighting a smile.

“Yes, of course, your hard work. You could graduate in six months’ time if you did as you were told and dedicated yourself to your courses. Is that not what you want? To be rid of this place?” Viggo asked.

There was no more pain. I opened my eyes to find myself facing the legs of my writing desk. I lay on my stomach on the floor, in nothing but my undergarments. My cheek was pressed against a blanket. Bryn worked somewhere behind me. I could feel the warmth of him against my sensitive back.

“I want the freedom to make my own future.” A substance of some kind crinkled like paper pinched or rubbed between two fingers. Something clinked against glass. Maybe a spoon stirring a liquid mixture in a bottle? “Once the stamp of this academy is added to my record, the only occupation I will ever be considered for is that of a soldier,” Bryn continued. “I can’t be admitted into Ishem’s School of Science until my father expels me.”

“So the past month of training was for nothing?”

“It appears that way, yes.”

Viggo sighed in frustration, but there was sadness in his voice when he spoke. “Why are you so intent on ending our friendship?”

Bryn laughed. “Your friendship I will keep until death, but this isn’t my calling. I know where I truly belong.”

“Blasphemer,” Viggo said, although the insult sounded half-hearted.

“Puritan,” Bryn shot back.

Viggo chuckled, but it was cut off. “What was Dotharr thinking, sending a woman to the general? Warriors are always men.”

Liquid was poured out of something. I could hear the rush of water as it slid through a funnel. Then the squishing of wet fabric and the dripping of excess water. The smell of herbs drifted through the air. “Now who is the blasphemer? Maybe that’s why Dotharr chose her. The best warrior is the one no one expects.”

Viggo scoffed. “She won’t last three days here.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Bryn said. “A day on the grounds and she’s already broken the rules. She has more spirit than you give her credit for.”

“Says the man tending so dutifully to her wounds,” Viggo said. “Having spirit does not mean she’s capable of completing the courses.”

“We’ll see.” A shuffle of movement, a shadow on the floor beside me, drawing
near.

I lifted my head and turned to face him.

“Hello,” he said, perking up in surprise. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m awake.”

“Yes,” he said with a nod. “That’s something. You slept through the night and most of today. Your wounds have sealed. You should be developing scabs by tomorrow evening.”

“Why did you help me?” I asked. “I have nothing to give in return. You must have known that.”

Bryn smiled softly. “A very wise woman once said, ‘A world without kindness is a dark and hopeless place.’ And that isn’t the kind of world I wish to live in.”

My eyes stung with the coming of new tears.

Viggo rolled his eyes and turned to leave. “I’ll see you at dinner, Bryn.”

“Until then,” Bryn said over his shoulder. His glowing eyes fell on my face again. “What’s your name?”

“Asta.”

“I would like to hear your story, if you are willing and able to tell it, Asta.”

I rubbed my face against the blanket. “You won’t like it.”

“We are rarely fond of the truth,” Bryn said with a shrug. “Tell me anyway.”

 

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A second look at In the Dark

It’s been one week since my paranormal fantasy novel, In the Dark, was published. The first chapter is available on the book’s page here on my blog and also as a preview on Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Nook. So I thought I’d give you guys the chance to read chapter two.

If, after reading, you realize this is the best thing since sliced bread and you simply have to purchase the rest of the book immediately lest you spontaneously combust, there will be links at the end of the post. Thanks for reading!

 


 

Chapter Two

Considering the tornado cellar was a place a family would come to for safety in a catastrophe, there wasn’t anything useful. Avery found a few thin blankets, a rotting wooden table and chair, an old oil lamp, and a few bottles of water.

He cheerfully distributed the water. “Good to know our kidnappers don’t plan to kill us by dehydration.”

Lindsay propped the unconscious woman’s head up with a folded blanket and wrapped her up in another, hoping to make her more comfortable on the earthy floor. The woman stirred a little at being moved but otherwise remained unconscious. After the oil lamp had been lit by Avery’s handy lighter, the hostages emptied out their pockets and piled the contents before the light.

“These guys haven’t come to check up on us,” Bailey muttered, throwing a reproachful look up at the ceiling. “Either they’re too busy to make sure we’re still alive, or they don’t care if we all starve.”

Kyle’s stomach growled when he caught sight of the smashed Baby Ruth bar Bailey had added to their pile of supplies. Avery swore he had a stomachache from all the junk he’d eaten before being captured and Lindsay promised she wasn’t hungry, so Bailey and Kyle shared it.

“All right,” Avery said when the kids finished eating their meager midnight snack.
“Let’s see what we’ve got. Three cell phones—one dead, one broken and one having
no signal whatsoever—fifty bucks and forty-three cents, two pieces of squished gum,
a receipt for the Baby Ruth bar that has already been eaten, a small box of matches,
a pack of cigarettes. . .” He gave Lindsay a sideways smirk. “Now, Jules, really. A nursing student should know better.”

“Those are yours,” Lindsay said with a flat look.

Avery tried to smother a smile that was both adorable and infuriating. “You can’t prove that.”

“I’ve never smoked a day in my life and you know it.” Lindsay batted her brother’s hand away from the switchblade in their midst. “Don’t touch that.”

“But I’ve always wanted one of these.” Kyle sent a worshipful look Avery’s way. “Where’d you get it?”

“Now, that’s just stereotypical, little man. Not all BMX bikers carry switchblades. That could be Bailey’s for all we know.”

“Is everything a joke to you?” Bailey asked, her mouth twisting in annoyance.

“Pretty much.”

“What else do we have?” Lindsay asked, trying to be patient.

“We’ve got a comb and a piece of string, an MP3 player, two empty wallets, a driver’s license, and a note from a secret admirer.” Avery opened up the folded piece of paper. “Bailey, this is so junior high. How old are the people you hang out with?”

Bailey huffed. “Wrong again, biker boy. That MP3 player, the receipt, the comb, and the pieces of gum are the only things that I had in my pockets when I was taken.”

Avery turned to Kyle. “Sandy wants to know if you ‘heart’ her and asks you to circle yes or no.”

Kyle snatched the note and shoved it into his pocket. “I wasn’t going to circle anything. I didn’t even know I still had it.”

“Uh-huh,” Avery said. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pooped.”

“How can you think about sleeping at a time like this?” Bailey asked. “We could’ve been snatched by sex traffickers!”

Kyle shuddered and wrapped his arms around his knees.

Avery threw the boy a worried glance before he cleared his throat and summoned a lazy smile. “Believe whatever you want, Bails, but don’t go spreading your fear around. It’ll only make things worse.”

“Everyone else is thinking it,” Bailey said, crossing her arms.

“We don’t know that for sure.” Lindsay scooted closer to her brother and wrapped an arm around him. “They could just be desperate lowlifes looking for a pay
day.”

Kyle was too quick to smile. “Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

“Kind of gullible, aren’t you?” Bailey muttered.

The boy flushed.

“Let’s not turn on each other now,” Lindsay said, wrestling with her motherly indignation. What’s this girl’s problem? Why pick on Kyle?

Bailey snatched the MP3 player before crawling away. “Whatever.”

“Well, that was dramatic.” Avery stood. “I’m going to find a quiet corner to sleep. Peace out, homies.”

Lindsay rolled her eyes at him and pulled her brother closer to her side. “I’m sorry you have to be here, munchkin.”

“I’m sorry you have to be here with him,” Kyle said, scowling at Avery’s retreating back.

“I’m an adult, hon. I’m perfectly capable of handling my ex.”

“Does it hurt a lot?” Kyle asked. “Seeing him again?”

“A little.” She fidgeted with a loose string on her frayed jean shorts. “But I expected that. I didn’t expect to. . .miss him, though. Not like this.”

“Did you love him?”

Lindsay watched Avery’s silhouette settle back into the adjacent corner of the room. “I did once.”

“Is that why you came back home? Because it was too painful to stay in Laguna?”

Lindsay sighed. “Yes and no. You deserved to know why I ran away to nursing school so suddenly, why I didn’t visit, why I hardly ever called.”

“It was Dad’s cheating, wasn’t it?”

Lindsay gave him an incredulous look. “You knew?”

Her little brother shrugged, staring intently at the dancing flame. “Not right away. After you left, Mom and Dad started arguing a lot. They stopped whenever I walked into the room, but I listened at the door once and heard everything.”

“I caught him having lunch with the other woman,” Lindsay said. “I saw the way he smiled at her. I knew they weren’t coworkers or friends. I confronted him about it later that day, told him to break it off or I’d tell Mom. He begged me to keep his secret. He wanted me to lie to you guys and I just couldn’t do that.”

Kyle nodded. “I understand.”

Her grip around him tightened momentarily. “You okay?”

He scoffed. “Our parents are going to get divorced. Are you okay?”

“No. . .but I’m glad it’s out in the open. Maybe I’ll be able to stay with you and Mom once this is all over.”

If this is ever over,” Kyle said miserably.

“Hey, don’t say that. Mom and Dad will pay the ransom. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
I hope. 
When she woke up, there was light in the cellar and not just the glow from the lamp.

Two men with masks crouched by the fifth hostage, murmuring to each other as they wrapped a clean bandage around her knee and gave her some medicine. A third man stood directly below the opened trap door in the ceiling, guarding the rope ladder. A fourth man stocked a small cooler with ice not too far away from the corner Avery had retreated to. A fifth man tossed a few rolled up sleeping bags onto the floor and eyed Bailey, who slept in another corner. A sixth man pointed the barrel of a gun at Lindsay’s face.

She went cross-eyed looking at it. Then her gaze slid up to meet the bright blue eyes barely visible through the holes in the mask. The heat of anger spread down the length of Lindsay’s body. The beast within reacted. It wanted to kill this man, to tear him apart with its teeth.

The stranger put a finger to his lips and gestured to the gun.

“We could use some hot food and a couple of pillows,” she said. “A little light would be nice too. I get it; you’re trying to scare us senseless by having us wake up to darkness. You’ve accomplished your goal already. Now let’s be adults.”

“Shut up! This isn’t a hotel service,” the man said with only a hint of an accent. He turned to his lackeys. “Hurry the hell up.”

They rushed to do as they were told.

“Leave some extra bandages and painkillers. I’ll make sure your injured hostage doesn’t get an infection and die before her family pays the ransom,” Lindsay said. “I’m a nurse.”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” He hit her across the face with the butt of his gun.

Her head jerked to the side, her neck popping painfully and her whole face throbbing. She slowly turned to look at him, pulling her lips back to expose her fangs. A growl filled the space between them, low and menacing.

The man stepped back. “Holy shit.”

“Jules?” Avery murmured groggily.

Lindsay reined in her anger and shut her mouth, willing the beast to retreat. It wasn’t easy. She was one day closer to the full moon. Pretty soon, she would have no control over it whatsoever. The thought made her stomach clench in fear. I have to get out of here!

Avery sat up, going from sleepy to nonchalant. “Morning, gents.”

The men pulled out their weapons.

Avery held his hands up. “Whoa, calm down.”

Kyle woke with a start and huddled closer to Lindsay. She gripped his hand, heart skipping in her chest. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.

“You just scared us, that’s all,” Avery said.

None of the men in masks said a word. They backed away from their hostages, guns raised. It wasn’t until all the men had climbed up the ladder and had closed the trap door behind them that Bailey started crying. Lindsay hadn’t noticed the teen had awakened until Bailey sucked in a long ragged breath and sobbed.

Lindsay reached up to wipe the fresh blood from her face.

“Lindsay, you’re hurt!” Kyle gasped.

Avery scrambled to his feet and ran to her. “Those bastards!” When he was close enough, he reached out to tentatively touch the cut across her cheekbone. There was nowhere else to look but at his face, not crinkled in amusement, not lazy and indifferent, but open and vulnerable and real. It was like turning back the clock to four months ago, when they were still together, when she believed he’d never do anything to hurt her. Pressure built around her throat. The world blurred around his face and then tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Avery whispered.

She could almost believe he wasn’t talking about her cheek. From the way he was looking at her, he could’ve been reading her mind and apologizing for breaking her heart. She turned away and hurriedly dabbed at her tears.

Avery let his hand fall back to his side, adopting a hollow expression. Before anyone could say a word, the unconscious hostage sat up and screamed. Avery dashed over to her. Bailey yelped. Kyle jumped with a girlish shriek. Lindsay stumbled to her feet, ignoring the pain that raced up her shin. It wasn’t sharp enough to send her sprawling but it did slow her down.

“Calm down. It’s okay, it’s okay,” Avery said soothingly.

Her face was frantic with pain. “My knee! Oh, God, my knee! Wait a sec…” She looked around, short hair bouncing. “Where’s Dev? Who are you? What’s going on?”

“D-Dev as in Deveron Bo, the actor?” Bailey raced over to join them. “You’re his girlfriend, aren’t you? Cordelia Ridge.”

“Whoa, Cordi Ridge the model? It’s very nice to meet you!” Avery said.

“Yeah, I’m Cordi. Who the hell are you?” She moved her hands as if to grip her knee, but then paused. Her teary eyes widened. “Oh, God, my knee’s killing me.”

“Just take it easy,” Lindsay said, kneeling beside her and holding out placating hands. “We’re not going to hurt you. Kyle, can you get me some ice?”

Her brother raced to the cooler to obey.

“I want you to breathe deeply and listen very carefully to what I’m going to tell you, okay?” Lindsay said.

The grimacing woman nodded and leaned back against the wall, biting her lip.

“My name is Lindsay Whittaker. I’m a nurse. I’m going to take care of you. We’re pretty sure we’re being held for ransom. Thanks, Kyle.” She took the ice cubes and placed them on the thin blanket lying next to Cordelia. “We should be all right if we keep our heads. Once the kidnappers have what they want, they’ll let us go. I’m willing to bet we’ll be home by tomorrow night at the latest.” Lindsay tore out the section of the blanket around the ice cubes and twisted the ends together. “Hold still. This might hurt.”

Cordelia recoiled from the ice. “Are you sure that’ll help?”

“It’ll make the swelling go down. I promise. ” Lindsay applied little pressure but kept the ice over the model’s knee. “Can you remember anything that happened before you were taken?”

Cordelia nodded. “I was with Dev. We had lunch and then he drove me home. Men in masks jumped out of the bushes as soon as he drove away. They. . .They grabbed me.” Tears streamed down her face. “I struggled. A neighbor tried to intervene, but they shot my knee and threw me over their shoulders before he could reach us. They shoved me into the backseat of a van, where a guy was waiting with a syringe. Whatever they gave me knocked me out and. . .well, now I’m here. What kind of monsters would—?” She noticed the kids and made a strange little sound of outrage. “You poor things! What’re you doing here?”

“Paying for our rich parents’ success, apparently,” Bailey said with an odd chuckle.

“But you’re. . .Kelly Dune’s daughter, right? How did you get kidnapped? Don’t you have your own security guards?”

Bailey sighed. “I have a boyfriend. My mom doesn’t know and neither do the guards. I go to Zumba three times a week and sneak away from the guards before the class is over to visit him. I was leaving his house when those guys with masks took me.” She scowled at her fellow hostages, suddenly defensive. “I wouldn’t have had to sneak around if my mom would trust me more.”

“Parents. They think they know what’s best, but just end up choking the life out of you.” Avery must’ve seen the questions on their faces because he adopted a tired smile. “Not a story you would want to hear.”

“Were your parents abusive?” Kyle asked, serious and curious all at once.

“Not unless you consider abandonment abuse.”

Kyle lowered his gaze. “Oh. Sorry. . .”

Avery forced a smile and stood. “Don’t sweat it, little man. It’s not a big deal. I’m going to go see what’s in the ice chest. Anybody want anything?”

Kyle and Bailey jumped at the opportunity to get some food.

“Bring something for me and Cordi, won’t you?” Lindsay asked, gently rubbing her shin.

Kyle nodded and jogged after Bailey.

Cordelia threw Lindsay a quizzical look. “Why do you think he’s here? I mean, if he doesn’t have a rich family. . .”

Lindsay had no answer for her.


 

To prevent spontaneous combustion:

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Another excerpt from “The Andromeda’s Ghost”

Pain came first, bursting into being and spreading across his body like fire. Taren gritted his teeth and opened his eyes. His surroundings were veiled and distorted. Even after blinking multiple times, it was hard to see. The pulse of his brain beating against the inner lining of his cranium might have had something to do with that. Messages from his rattled mind were sent to the rest of his body and his limbs sluggishly began to move. He unclipped his seatbelt and fell against the control panel of his ship with a grunt. The monitors were off, but the lights under several buttons were flickering. There was still some power. Large metal slabs were embedded into the dash. Taren turned away, looking for Kylee.

His copilot was still strapped to her seat, head sagged against her chest, long hair covering her face. She didn’t appear to be breathing. Fear gave him the strength to push off the control panel and get to her.

“Kylee?” He lifted her face and brushed the strands of dark hair away from her eyes. Those glassy, almond-shaped orbs stared back at him. He freed her from the restraints and she fell heavily against him. The back of her white dress was sticky with blood. A sharp piece of metal protruded from the back of her seat, the end of which was stained red. Taren’s breath hissed in through his teeth as he fought to control his panic. He slipped a hand under her bent knees and hoisted her up. Her cold body leaned into him as he began the angled climb out of the cockpit.

 

“If I’d known you’d be this much trouble, I never would’ve gotten involved,” he said as he braced himself against the control panel.

The monitors flashed the “Eminent Collision” message and that danger siren screeched across the cockpit as the planet’s gravitational pull yanked their burning ship out of the sky. And Taren was making jokes.

Kylee just laughed. “Yeah, you would’ve.”

He grinned.

 

Taren blinked rapidly to get rid of the stinging. It didn’t help. His grip around Kylee tightened. He ambled through the metallic hallway, hoping there would be something to help her in sick bay. There was a giant hole at the end of the hall, where the ship’s infirmary should have been. Taren looked over his shoulder. Through the archway, he could see clear into the cockpit. The placement of the metal pieces in the control panel and copilot’s seat suddenly made sense. There was one more piece stuck in the controls above the pilot’s chair. It must’ve missed Taren’s head by inches.

Rage built up around his throat and made his scalp tingle. Why couldn’t I have died with her?

The distant sound of a landing ship caught Taren’s ear. It had to be the men that had chased them to this unknown planet. Taren took a moment to think, drumming his fingers against Kylee’s leg. He made a snap decision and set her down over the inclined floor of the hallway before clamoring up the stairs. The lights flickered in the kitchen but it was enough for Taren to see by. He loped around the table, past the supplies littered across the floor, and to the cabinets aligning the west wall. After punching the code into the screen, the cabinet door slid open. There was an emergency backpack waiting for him. Once the pack was slung over his shoulder, Taren took one more moment to grab an extra canteen of water before he made his way back to Kylee.

His journey down the stairs became much harder with the added weight of his survival pack. He hobbled through the dark lower level of the ship with Kylee in his arms, to the ramp that would lead him outside. He jammed his thumb into the button several times before the airlock opened. The ramp lowered to reveal a flat landscape. Two moons hung in the sky, casting their ghostly glow over the earth. A dry wind swept over Taren as he walked out.

He collapsed against the side of his smoking ship, taking deep breaths, arms and shoulders burning. Exhausted as he was, he had to keep moving. He had to get away. He cast his eyes across the horizon, ignoring the pain in his head and looking for any sign of life. The red and yellow landing lights of an unfamiliar ship flashed over the hill to the west. If he strained his ears, he could hear the hiss of the cooling systems. There was a river-like coil of lights in the east. There was no way Taren could make it there on foot. There was nothing but darkness to the north, and yet he could pick out darker shadows against the sky that blotted out the stars. Trees perhaps? He pushed off the ship and started walking.

           

Thrusters coughing across the sky sent Taren running for the giant burrow in the ground. From the size of its entryway, it would be big enough to offer him some shelter. It didn’t matter if it was the home of some monstrous creature. He had to hide. Now.

Every muscle quivered in exhaustion. His feet seemed to be palpitating within his boots, screaming for release. Still, he pushed himself to run across the salt flat of a dead lake between decaying vegetation to get to the burrow. He tripped and fell inside with a surprised grunt. He curved his body over Kylee’s as the momentum of his fall rolled him down into the cave. His body fell against the rocks toward the bottom of the decline, cutting off his cry of pain and surprise. The sound echoed off the dew-covered walls. He rose with a groan and shuffled further into the cave, where darkness was beginning to gather. He carefully lowered Kylee onto the ground, shrugged out of his pack, and began to dig through it. His fingers found something that crinkled. He pulled out the thermal blanket and unrolled it quickly. Using it and some of the rocks that had broken his fall, Taren constructed a crude tent. He grabbed Kylee by the armpits and dragged her into the tent. Then he crouched beside her and waited, hoping beyond hope that the dark blanket would blend into the semi darkness around him.

At first, all he could hear was the howl of the dry wind ripping across the land. He strained his ears for further sounds of the enemy ship or a landing crew. There was nothing. Taren relaxed but only just. He retrieved a pack of dehydrated fruit and broke it open. He almost choked on his food when he heard footsteps approaching the entrance of the burrow.

“I’m telling you something popped up on the radar,” a voice said.

“And I’m telling you it was nothing,” a second voice growled. “The wind and the heat are screwing up the readings.”

The beeping of some hand-held machinery traveled down to meet Taren.

“There, see? It’s picking up some form of heat signature,” the first voice said.

“Is it ninety-eight degrees?”

“No, but…”

“Then it’s not human. It’s probably some desert beast. We’re wasting time here.”

“There wasn’t anyone on the ship,” the first voice snapped. “They must be in the desert somewhere. If we don’t check every heat signature thoroughly, they’re going to slip past us and Churab is going to kill us.”

Taren’s brow furrowed. Churab?

“I can understand scouring through a monster-infested burrow for a heat signature that’s close to a human’s average body temperature but…Let me see that,” the second voice grumbled, no doubt swiping the hand-held heat seeker from his partner. “This is a single signature in the eighties. It’s not them.” He threw the machine back at his partner with a thump. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before we wake whatever creepy-crawly lives here.”

They argued for a few minutes more before the first was finally convinced. Then they left. Taren exhaled and leaned back against the rocks. So these mercenaries were being led by someone named Churab, someone who wouldn’t take kindly to failure.

Good for Maju; sucks for me.

Taren yanked his pack open wider and began to look through his supplies. He had enough dried food, canned goods, and food supplement bars to keep him alive for about a week, and that was if he had a source of water nearby to refill his canteens. While walking, he’d kept an eye out for a well or a lake, and had found neither. It seemed everything around these parts had dried up. If he rationed the water he had, he could survive in that burrow for approximately three days, but then he wouldn’t have any water left for the return journey to the crash site.

The mercs should have finished scouring through the marsh in a day or two. It’ll be safe to walk back to the ship then.

Taren’s eyes flickered to the dead bride lying beside him. The gown wasn’t something Kylee would have chosen. It was gaudy and extravagant, with glittery patches of silver, a ridiculously poofy skirt, and a plunging neckline. No doubt it had been selected for her by Queen Miyako.

God, I hate that woman. She never cared about what Kylee wanted.

The grief, fear, and despair washed over the walls of numbness that had constructed themselves around his mind. Suddenly, he was sobbing. He couldn’t control the sounds of agony forcing their way up his throat or the tears pouring from his eyes. So he hugged his knees to his chest and let it come. Then the numbness returned. With shaking hands, Taren pulled his lover into his arms and pressed his face into her soft hair.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I failed you.”

Using the knife in his pack and his bare hands, he dug a shallow grave deeper in the cave and buried her. Then he curled up in his thermal tent and tried to sleep.

 

“Hey.”

Taren woke with a start to find that he was lying on his side. The shoulder pressed up against the earth was numb and his neck prickled uncomfortably. He slowly sat up and rubbed his shoulder. He locked eyes with Kylee, who sat across the cave, munching on some dried fruit. He skittered back against the rocks with a curse.

Kylee’s eyes widened. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“How are you here? You were dead!”

Kylee cocked her head to the side. “Really.”

Taren looked down at himself. “I know I’m not dead. My heart’s still beating and I still feel like crap. I must’ve hit my head or knocked something loose when we crashed.” He glanced back at Kylee, disappointed. “You’re just a hallucination.”

Kylee shrugged and peered into the bag of dried fruit she was snacking from. “Well, imagine some better-tasting food. This stuff is gross.” She shoved the bag aside before standing. She wore black leather pants, combat boots that ended mid-calf, and a speeder jacket with gold stripes down the arms. Her hair was in a loose ponytail with a few free strands hanging by her ears. This was the girl he’d fallen in love with, the racer born a princess. He had been trained to protect her and had despised her right up until the day he caught her sneaking out of the palace to race speeders with low-life thugs. It was hard to believe she was nothing but a memory now.

Taren swallowed past the dry spot in his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Kylee blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “People die all the time, Terry.”

“I should’ve—”

Kylee held up a hand to stop him. “This was their fault, not yours. Let the matter be.”

Taren nodded and cleared his throat. “Yeah. Okay.”

Kylee shoved her hands in her pockets before glancing about the cave. “Maju is going to be pissed when he finds out the mercs killed me. Maybe he’ll have them executed.”

“Nah,” Taren muttered, crawling out from his tent. “Your prince charming will wait until they find me and bring me to him. Then he’ll have the mercs executed.”

Kylee wrinkled her slightly upturned nose at me. “He was never my prince and you know it. What are you going to do now?”

Taren sighed. “I have to get back to the ship. If it’s fixable, it can get me off this miserable rock. If not, I’ll have to get out of here by other means.”

“You never did name the ship,” Kylee said.

Taren gave her an exasperated look. “It already has a name and a captain. I stole it, remember?”

“Yeah, but you’re not giving it back so that makes it yours.” Kylee adopted a thoughtful look as she rocked on the balls of her feet. “How about…The Andromeda?”

Taren wrinkled his nose at her. “The what?”

“Andromeda was one of Earth’s mythological princesses who was put in a life-threatening situation because of her mother’s pride. She ended up being rescued by Perseus, a young Pegasus-riding warrior who swooped in just in time.” She shrugged. “I thought it was fitting.”

Taren grew somber. “You’re right. It’s perfect.” He reached out to touch her face, amazed at his mind’s ability to create such a real apparition.

Kylee smiled, just a slight curling of the lips. “You should get yourself checked. You might have brain damage.”

“Maybe later,” Taren said, letting his hand drop.

A hiss came from the back of the cave, where the darkness was deepest. He dove into his tent and wrenched the knife away from his pack before turning to face whatever creature awaited him. He was about to tell Kylee to find some cover when he realized he was alone. He did a double take, staring at the spot she’d been standing just moments earlier. Then the creature emerged.

It had the same build of a dog but was the size of a bear. Instead of skin or fur, it was covered in silver reptilian scales. Its snout was long; its forked tongue flicked from its open mouth. Its milky white eyes had no pupils. Oh, and it could breathe fire. When it barked, a gust of flames burst from its lips. Taren swore and dove out of the way before he could be incinerated. He rolled onto his feet and brandished his pitiful weapon. The beast charged, whipping out a spiked tail to bash Taren in the face. He leapt back with a curse and swiped his knife across the beast’s tail. The alien monster snarled, but its scaly skin remained unharmed.

“Great,” Taren muttered.

He dodged another jet of fire, feeling the heat kiss his side. He continued to dance just out of the creature’s range until it became angry enough to charge a second time. Taren skidded to the side and jabbed at the monster’s eyes, but it cost him. The creature racked its claws across Taren’s abdomen. He let out a scream of rage and pain before he tackled the beast. They rolled over the damp earth, kicking up clumps of mud and wrestling for the upper hand. Spurts of fire flew past Taren’s face, singeing his ears and his hair. Somehow when they stopped, Taren was on top and his knife was embedded in the creature’s soft underbelly. The dog-bear-reptile thing let out a whine and a puff of smoke before going limp.

Taren released his hold on the knife and fell over onto his side. The front of his shirt and cargo pants was soaked in blood. The smell of burned flesh and hair made his nose twitch. His stomach…Taren groaned and began crawling to his tent. Somehow he made it to his pack and found the med kit. Somehow he found the sealing spray and coated his stomach with it. Somehow he managed to swallow the pain killers and apply the burn ointment to his face. Then he lay on his back in a pool of his own sweat and blood, and caught his breath. He stared up at the ceiling of his little tent, fighting back tears.

Kylee’s head appeared within his line of vision, dark hair swinging. She whistled. “You don’t look so good, Terry.”

“I can’t do this,” he said through his teeth. “I need more than what I’ve got to survive in this hell-hole.”

Her smile was soft. “You’re just saying that because you’re in pain. From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re doing pretty good.”

Taren slammed his fists into the ground beneath him. “How can you say that? Look at me! I’m a freakin’ mess.”

“But you’re alive.”

Guilt stole away his retort. He sat up and twisted around to face her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Kylee nodded. “I know you didn’t.”

Taren sniffled and wiped his face with the back of his blood-stained hand. His eyes fell on the monster he’d just killed. “There might be more of them. I should look for another place to hide.”

“Or there might not be,” Kylee said. “You’re hurt. You need to rest.”

Taren leaned back against the rocks, too tired to argue with her. “Yes, ma’am.” As his eyelids drooped, he could almost feel her touch on his cheek.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’ll watch over you.”

An excerpt

Prologue (The Andromeda’s Ghost) :

 

Kylee stared at her reflection in the compact mirror, trying and failing to suppress her horror. Her dark hair had been braided and twisted into three buns along the back of her head (one behind each ear and one at the nape of her neck) with only one long curl trailing down her shoulder. Makeup had been caked onto her face to supposedly make her look older than her twenty-one years. She looked like an escort drowning in white lace and chiffon. She gave her mother a miserable look.

The queen snatched the compact from her daughter and tossed it at one of the ladies in waiting. “The doors will be opening any minute. Lower your veil now. No one needs to see you pouting like a child.” Her raven black hair was piled on the top of her head to make her look taller. Her makeup was even more exaggerated than Kylee’s, although, if makeup was meant to make one look older Kylee wasn’t sure why her mother had bothered wearing any. The dress the queen wore was made of red satin with pearl embellishments and sported a plunging neckline. If this had been the first time the queen had tried to prove she still looked thirty-years-old, Kylee might have been embarrassed. Sadly, it was not.

Kylee tugged the veil into place as one of the guards opened the door to the large hover craft. He extended a hand to help her climb out, for which she was grateful. Her wedding dress was ridiculously large and heavy.

The venue was just about the only thing Kylee’s mother had gotten right. An enormous cathedral sat on a slightly elevated plateau toward the outskirts of the jungle. It had tall towers, archways, and the traditional stain glass windows of a medieval cathedral from 20th century earth. It was one of the few of its kind in New Sol. Kylee gazed up at the artistically designed structure barely visible through the layers of tulle covering her face, and smiled for the first time in months. She’d wanted to get married here since she was nine years old.

Grief smothered her moment of joy. It’s the wrong man.

The queen fluttered about her daughter, fluffing the already too-fluffy skirt of her gown, swatting away the occasional insect, and muttering, “Stand up straight, my dear. That’s right. You’re so beautiful when you exercise good posture. Hands clasped before you…Perfect. Now, nod ever so graciously at the camera and proceed.”

Kylee found the camera hovering over the heads of the thousands of guests crowded around the cathedral’s entrance. She obeyed her mother and began the long walk across the lawn. She knew Taren wouldn’t be there but she still looked for him, desperate for a glimpse of black curls or oak brown eyes or a dimpled chin. Her mother and ladies in waiting trailed behind her, smiling and waving. An armored guard stood on either side of her.

Not long ago, Taren stood dutifully at her side during grand, obnoxious events like these. He would murmur lame knock-knock jokes out of the corner of his mouth to keep her smile genuine for the crowds. Sometimes he would cup her elbow and stay a step ahead to shield her from the cameras when she was too upset to face them. The more she thought about him, the sadder she became, but she couldn’t help it. He should be here.

She stumbled. A collective gasp rang through the crowd.

One of her guards took her by the arm. “Are you well, Princess?”

She nodded, perhaps a little too hastily, and continued her walk. But yet again, maybe he shouldn’t be here. Going through with this was painful enough for her. If she had to see the look on Taren’s face when she said, “I do,” she might’ve broken down on national television.

The doors to the cathedral loomed before her, blocked the sun for a moment, and then she was inside. The walls had been modified to mirror the scenery outside. She could still see the tangles of green jungle stretching out below and the grassy floor of the plateau. The only differences between the exterior and the interior were the drop in temperature and the seemingly magical appearance of chairs. Yet more people stood here, smiling and ogling and whispering and sighing and throwing her envious looks. There were quite a few more Mer-people within the cathedral than there were outside. An archway heavy laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy waited for her at the end of the aisle, along with her groom.

Kylee swallowed hard and lifted her chin when she saw her father. He wore his traditional general’s uniform, medals, and ceremonial sword. Even with the inserts in his boots, he was barely taller than she was. He looked deathly pale; his almond-shaped eyes were sad. He mutely held his elbow out to her, still powerless to oppose his wife and the demands of their almost-enemies. Kylee felt the familiar rush of frustration before accepting his arm. What good was there in being the king if he could still be overruled?

A hush fell over the audience and then the music began to play. Ten, twenty, thirty steps later, she stood before her fiancé. He was built like a pampered prince with undeveloped muscle beneath his tuxedo and waxy, green skin. Gills cut across both sides of his neck and scaly frills grew behind each ear. His glassy black eyes stared at her, unblinking. He extended a hand with a slight bow of his head; his fingers were webbed. Kylee couldn’t help but stare. Could he speak English? Was he kind? Was he expecting her to carry his children?

Kylee’s grip on her father tightened as the floor tilted beneath her feet. She’d always wanted to be a mother, but the thought of giving birth to tadpoles made her stomach turn. But she could feel the focus of that flying camera like a light blazing through a magnifying glass and aimed at the back of her head. The whole world was watching, waiting for her to continue the ceremony. She took a deep breath and reached out to him with a trembling hand.

The sound of an explosion made her twist around in alarm. Through the open doors of the cathedral, she watched her mother’s hovercraft erupt in a ball of fire. The floor shook from the blast, causing the cathedral’s walls to flicker in and out of existence. Chaos followed. The guests jumped from their chairs and ran to where they assumed the nearest exits were. They encountered invisible walls instead. The guards masquerading as attendees tried to calm those nearest to them with little success. The armored guards rushed outside to investigate the cause of the explosion, only to be thrown off their feet by a second blast which destroyed yet another hovercraft. Kylee was torn away from her father by the desperate throng. The second earthquake from the blast sent her looking for shelter. She fell back against the wall. Her fiancé, mother, and personal guards wrestled through the people running in every direction, trying to get to their princess.

All she could hear was white static. She blinked at the fire consuming the two hovercrafts in the distance and gaped the herd of frantic people as if in a stupor. What in the world was going on? Someone touched her shoulder. She spun around to see Taren standing beside her. He was dressed in a tux for the occasion. He could have passed for a guest. Her former bodyguard lifted the veil away from her face, cupped her cheek, and pressed his lips against hers.

He flashed her a crazy grin once they parted. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

“You know you just started a war between my father’s kingdom and the Mer-people, right?” Kylee sputtered.

Taren squinted at the burning hunks of machinery in the distance. “I set the bombs under your mother’s hovercrafts. If anything, it appears the Mer-people are waging war against your father.”

Kylee let out a hysterical laugh before she threw her arms around him. “Thanks for waiting until my mother was out of the car.”

“Oh, it wasn’t easy. Believe me,” he said with a chuckle.

The sight of the Mer-prince sprinting toward them with murderous rage twisting his face made Kylee shove Taren out of the way. She received a punch to the face that was probably meant for the back of Taren’s head. Stumbling back, she slapped a hand over her aching mouth and blinked away tears.

The Mer-prince gaped at her in horror. “I’m sorry!”

Taren tackled him into the archway. “You bastard!” The wood collapsed, sending hydrangea petals and leaves of ivy everywhere. The men wrestled, but it was obvious who had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. Taren quickly gained the upper hand.

“Kylee Wen Dao!” her mother screeched from somewhere behind her.

The princess half turned, hand still over her mouth. Through a sliver of a gap between people, Kylee could see her furious mother marching toward her, hair undone, makeup ruined, dress torn. It was the angriest and most disheveled she’d ever seen her mother look. The rebellious child in her rejoiced. Kylee gripped Taren’s shoulder before he could continue to beat up the Mer-prince.

“If you have an escape plan, now would be the time to share it.”

He nodded somewhat grimly at the prince before rising. Then he took her hand and expertly zigzagged them through the crowd. She didn’t know when he’d taken the time to memorize the locations of the camouflaged exits and she didn’t ask. She knew they were outside when the temperature changed. A cargo cruiser waited in the shade of some trees toward the bottom of the plateau. She grinned at the man leading her by the hand, memory after memory flashing through her mind.

Taren sitting at his usual chair on the terrace, calmly cleaning his blaster gun while explaining his reasons for not telling the queen about her daughter’s alter ego, the Golden Mare, champion racer of the underground.

Taren laughing a full belly laugh when Kylee asked for his opinion on her god-awful painting.

Taren lying in a hospital bed, battered and bruised, after surviving a bomb blast that had been meant for the princess.

Taren wearing a white tux and holding out his hand during her birthday ball, asking for the first dance.

Taren pressing her up against the wall and kissing her with enough passion to make her head spin.

Taren bowing stiffly after the queen had fired him. “Good bye, Princess. It was an honor serving you.”

The dress tore while she ran down the steep decline. Kylee hefted up the heavy skirt with her free hand and picked up the pace. Then her veil ripped away from the clips keeping it attached to her head. Kylee couldn’t have cared less. Once at the bottom of the plateau, she let go of Taren’s hand so that he could press the button that would lower the cargo ramp.

“The Mer-king’s ships will be waiting for us as soon as we leave the atmosphere.” Taren winked over his shoulder at her. “Are you ready for one last race, Golden Mare?”

Kylee laughed and kicked off her shoes. “You better believe it.” She reached for her tiara as she followed him into the space ship, wanting nothing more than to chuck it into the jungle. But she paused when she caught her reflection in the diamonds.

“If you do this, you’ll never be able to come back,” her mother’s voice hissed at the back of her mind.

Kylee took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Racing in the underground and falling in love with the youngest bodyguard to graduate from the Guard Institute had been the only acts of rebellion she’d had the courage to do. And those had been committed after twenty years of trying to please her unappeasable mother. But there had been no leniency upon the discovery of these two secrets. The queen had put her daughter on an even shorter leash, organized this marriage, and banished Taren from the palace grounds within a week.

Tears made Kylee’s eyes burn. Was there ever a time when you loved me? You were so focused on turning me into what you believed would be the perfect daughter and princess. Did you ever wonder who I really was? Were you ever the least bit curious?

“Kylee.”

She turned to face him. Taren’s eyes flickered to the tiara in her hands before landing on her face. The wind tousled his hair as a sad smile made his lips curl.

“It’s a part of you whether you leave it behind or not.”

She glanced down at the symbol that had always set her apart from the rest of the world, the metallic piece of headwear her mother never let her leave the palace without. She knelt by the edge of the ramp and gingerly placed the tiara in the grass. Yes, she would always have royal blood running through her veins, but she was done playing the part of the perfect princess.

The diamonds reflected the sun as the cargo cruiser made its ascent. Kylee turned her head skyward and didn’t look back.