Tuesday, February 27, 2024

DARK HOURS, a Fantasy Romance by Linda Mooney - Chapter 2

Posted by: Linda Mooney

Chapter 2
Two A.M. 

The dungeon was hushed, even more than usual for this hour of the night. In the dead of winter no one who wasn’t a prisoner spent any more time in these frigid rooms than was necessary. Which made the old priest’s penance very solitary.

The frost permeated the stones until it melded to the skin of his cheek. Matthias moved his legs slightly to keep his knees from sticking to the rock, but the simple gesture seemed as futile as his reason for kneeling before the makeshift altar he’d created.

It was bitterly cold, yet the priest felt he was due the discomfort. And more. The agony seeping through his old muscles and bones could not begin to match the guilt which filled him like poison.

“Forgive me, Lord, for the damage I have brought upon that man and woman. Forgive me.”

How long had he been praying there? An hour? Two hours? Matthias groaned as a sharp pain knifed through his back. He could kneel here a hundred hours and it wouldn’t be enough. He could castigate himself again and again in penance and it would never suffice. All feeling in his outer extremities had been lost.

“Have pity on this foolish man,” he continued, eyes tightly shut. “Receive my sins and cast them away. Guide me, help me, Heavenly Father, for I have committed a most regrettable act.”

He should have known better. Matthias was all too aware of his mistake now. But even with such clarity of hindsight, there’s no way he could have foreseen what events would take place, or what results would have occurred. He had done what he was allowed to do—bring two people together in holy matrimony.

And for that, he’d been cursed with lifelong torment.

“Oh, God. My loving God.” The old priest shifted his knees against the stone floor, shifting off his toes and lowering his legs in order to seat his buttocks along his calves. There was a wetness along his face, and he realized it was from his own tears. The tears quickly cooled into stiff scabs of ice.

To everything there was a reason. For every sin committed, there was the consequence. God had chosen Matthias for a special purpose, although the priest prayed it would soon be over.

But how could something as diabolical as what the witch had done ever be “over”? How could it ever be made “right” again? Two people had been condemned for life by the blackest power ever revealed, and Matthias…Matthias was the direct cause of it.

“I am at thy mercy, Heavenly Father.”

He had never meant for this horror to occur. He had never intended for such misery to be inflicted. Yes, Matthias knew Gola had been found guilty of practicing witchcraft by the church. What no one expected was the sheer power the woman possessed because she worshiped the black arts as fervently and as devoutly as Matthias worshipped the Trinity. No one anticipated the demons she summoned from the earth to defeat the king and his soldiers. No one expected the devastation she wrought in her need for vengeance.

Matthias clenched his fists. His skin was so numb he couldn’t feel his nails pressing into the flesh. “Have pity on this foolish man. I have created an ultimate sin. If taking my life is what will atone for my mistakes, then take it, Father. Take it. Take…it.”

Shoulders shook as the old man silently wept against the frigid stones. The warm tears momentarily released the ice crystals adhered to his face.

He had been privy to Emers’s confessions. She had made him her council and sought him out at all hours to tell him about the man who had captured her heart.

“He is like thunder, Father,” she’d said with the sun shining from her eyes. “You should see him at practice with his blade.”

“Like thunder, eh, child?”

“His arm is stronger than his courage. All his men respect him.”

That was the truth. Under Kayge d’Bayar’s command, his men were considered to be the prime defensive force of the castle. The king’s right arm. Hence their positions were elevated to become part of the king’s own private guards.

Kayge’s obedience and dedication to his liege was unparalleled, which was why, after Gola had destroyed Estephan and his whole family, when she’d tried to bring the centurion into her fold, he’d shunned her. Fought her. And thusly, was cursed by her.

What followed was shocking.

No, not shocking. Unconscionable.

If only he’d been forewarned. If only he’d known what would result from his carelessness.

“If horses had wings and if trees could talk,” Matthias muttered with a little half-sob choking him as he remembered

* * * 

There was no way of knowing when the witch had first seen Kayge. But everyone in the town and in the surrounding kingdom knew of him. Knew how bravely the man fought and defended his king and country with a phalanx of swords at his command. It wasn’t until the evil woman had been caught and sentenced that she realized she was in trouble.

It was rumored she had tried to sway Kayge to be more lenient with her. To allow his men to give her water when she thirsted. A bite of bread when she hungered. Kayge ordered his men to ignore her, making her more angry with him. It was while she wasted away inside the dungeon, awaiting her final sentencing, that she began making plans to escape. What no one suspected was that, although she’d take her anger out on the king, her vengeance would come down on the centurion.

As she planned, plotted, and began drawing forth the demons from the farthest depths of Hell, Gola kept her attention on Kayge. On the man who showed her no mercy. The king she’d already written off. Estephan and his family were doomed. They would be quickly exterminated. However, she wanted to take a great, perverse joy in making Kayge suffer in the worst way possible. Make him suffer the way he’d let her suffer. All she needed was to find that way. That reason. That target.

It came in the form of Emers Ammin.

It was no secret when the centurion first spied Emers. It was on a bright and impossibly warm spring Sunday when the lithe, young woman entered the chapel. She was an orphan, raised by the Sisters of Perpetual Sorrow until she reached her eighteenth year. At that time she’d left the convent, not wanting to take the vows, and came to Noranye to live with her only remaining relative, her father’s brother’s son, and his family. It was with the family that she attended her first mass in her new home, and it was then Kayge saw her for the first time.

At that moment the man’s heart was set. At that moment, with the pre-Lenten sun pouring over her and turning her gold hair into a halo of bright fire, the soldier, considered strong and unyielding, yielded.

It was fortuitous that the d’Valani family lived in Matthias’ parish. He saw Emers regularly when the family came to worship. It was to him Emers made her confessions to. Thus, it was Matthias who suddenly and curiously became Gola’s primary source of information. He had no knowledge that the witch had discovered a possible weakness in the centurion and needed the priest to corroborate what she’d learned.

Matthias never questioned why the witch had become infatuated with the members of his parish when he went on his visits to try to convert her. Nor why he was prodded with increasing regularity about the comings and goings and dealings with the girl cousin. Despite the rumors he’d heard about the witch, Matthias tried to perform his duties as best he could. He was there to save her soul. He was only doing what the king had ordered him to do. Which was why he felt he’d be able to accomplish that by attempting to befriend her. Answer her questions. Be open and frank with the woman.

The days became a week, then a month. Spring melted under the summer sky. Matthias continued his daily excursions to convince Gola to denounce her sinful ways as she was kept captive. Despite her stubbornness, he refused to admit defeat.

In the meantime, it was inevitable that Kayge d’Bayar would see, would meet, and would speak to Emers Ammin. How could he not fall in love with her as well as nearly every other man had? Matthias knew. He was also confessor to every soldier within his parish. As such, it did not surprise him when the centurion finally knelt inside the confessional and opened his heart to the priest.

“I caused a great evil,” Matthias whispered. He couldn’t stop the memories pounding in his head. It was as if the Lord was personally resurrecting each one to show the old man the error of his ways.

Once Emers had confided to Matthias how saddened she was that the centurion never took notice of her, at how he deliberately seemed to avoid her, Matthias knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stand to watch the young couple grow more distant when their hearts were trying to forge a bond, so he played matchmaker. He had Emers come to the church to help him with a task regarding mending a tapestry.

“I asked a couple of the sisters if they could fix it, but they all recommended you. They said your fingers were the most nimble, the most agile,” he informed her. Emers had blushed, reluctant to admit she excelled in that particular skill taught to her back at the convent. She was eager to do what she could.

It had taken her several hours to make the repairs. By the time she finished, night had fallen. Thus Matthias called for Kayge to escort the young woman to her home to ensure her safety.

As he watched from an upper window, at the young woman riding in front of the centurion atop the same stallion, Matthias knew his interference had worked. Pleased with himself, the priest went to say his evening prayers, and added one more to insure the couple a long and loving relationship.

He had no foreshadowing of the misery he would cause to befall the two, nor of the horrendous curse they’d be subjected to.

TO BE CONTINUED

Linda's Website

Monday, February 26, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday February 26, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday February 26, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:



Tuesday February 20, 2024: Deborah Bailey offers some suggestions for completing our books in her pos, Traps Writers Should Watch Out For

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Traps Writers Should Watch Out For

Posted by: Deborah A Bailey

 Even if we have the best intentions for getting our books completed, there are traps that can undermine our plans.

One pitfall is the fear of failure. It can lead to self-doubt and procrastination and stall the writing process. Another trap is perfectionism, where we can waste time trying to create the perfect story or perfect sentence. It's important to remember that writing is a process – that’s what drafts are for!

Another trap is imposter syndrome, where we doubt our own abilities. This can be especially challenging for writers who are just starting out. But it’s something that even experienced writers can stress about. It's important for us to remember that everyone starts out with no experience (and no published books or stories).

One last trap is when we compare ourselves to others. There will always be someone who seems to have it all together, or someone who has more success.  In the end we have to focus on our own writing journey instead of questioning why we aren’t following the same path as others.

Some days will be better than others. Some projects will be easier while others will be much more challenging. No matter what stage you’re at in your career, don’t let these traps get in your way. Keep going and enjoy the process. 

 

Monday, February 19, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday February 19, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday February 19, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:




Tuesday February 13, 2024: PG Forte talks about her NEW RELEASE, Put a Ring Around the Rosie




The Once Upon A Princess stories came to me in excerpts. Bits and pieces of the story ideas came to me but I didn't know what to do with them. Finally after a lot of drafts I figured out what the stories would be about for Heart of Stone and Beauty & the Faun. They both have Beauty & the Beast as an influence, and Cinderella too. Land of Dreams came later and was inspired by a friend of mine (also a book blogger and reviewer) who really liked the hero from Heart of Stone. So he got his own story. 

Two of the books are on sale for the month of February. Read about them below!

 Formula for Fairy Tale Love: 1 Adventurous Heroine + 1 Tortured-But-Noble Hero = Happily-Ever-After


"Heart of Stone:" Leesa trespasses into a haunted palace, where she meets a lonely gargoyle. Breaking the spell that cursed him may carry a price steeper than she's able…or willing…to pay.

On sale for 99 cents until Feb. 29th at Amazon, B&N, Apple & Kobo.


Read an excerpt:


Leesa headed up the stairs and stopped at the 2nd floor landing. Eduardo and Erokan's rooms had been on this floor. Dust was everywhere, but otherwise the furnishings were just as they'd been left. Varmont's bedroom, private study and library were on the 3rd floor. Most likely he would've hidden some of his valuables there. She went upstairs to check. The doors to the Duke's room, study and library were open. But the fourth door was closed. The treasure room, perhaps? 

She opened the door and stepped inside. Strangely, this room wasn't as dusty as the others. 
The air was heavy with perfume. Across from the door was a folding screen decorated with blue and yellow flowers. Behind it she could make out the base of a claw-foot tub. 

To her surprise, the entire room had a feminine feeling, from the huge bed covered with blush pink coverlets and plush furs to the gold-trimmed white furniture. Even the jewel-encrusted skylight above her had its own beauty, reflecting colorful sprinkles of light over the pale stone walls. 

A white cabinet with glass doors caught her attention. The shelves held glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Some had liquids inside, others were empty. What were these? Perfumes? Or maybe potions. 

The Duke used magic. Maybe this was where he'd kept his enchantments. Would they be worth anything? Possibly. But just as Leesa reached out to open the cabinet, the door slammed behind her. 

Startled, she spun around. She was alone. Who had closed it? Leesa ran to the door and gripped the handle, expecting the door to open as easily as it had when she'd come in. But it didn't. She pulled and banged on it, but it wouldn't budge.



"Beauty & the Faun:" Kayla flees an arranged marriage and falls for a faun shifter instead. But how can she ignore her duty by refusing to marry a prince?


On sale for 99 cents until Feb. 29th at Amazon, B&N, Apple & Kobo


Read an excerpt:

Kayla leaned against the tree, her legs drawn up. A flash of memory from her childhood came to her, reminding her that she'd once had days like this back when her father was alive. The forest had been home then, with the three of them in their small house on the edge of the woods. 

"Del, I've never met anyone like you," she said. "I haven't had a chance to have fun since my mother and I lived in the forest. I'm always working." 

"You lived in the forest?" he asked. 

"When my father was alive. But when he got sick and died, my mother and I moved in with my uncle and aunt." 

"That's too bad," Del said. "You must miss him." 

"I do. Do your parents live in the forest?" 

"No. They live in a big house. I live there too, sometimes. But I love it out here. I feel free. The forest folk are very open and welcoming." 

"Are there fairies here too?" Her father had talked about them, and how nice they were. 

"Of course." Del yawned. "They're a lot of fun." 

"Like satyrs?" she asked. She did want to know more about them. 

He chuckled. "Not quite. Satyrs are always wanting to drink and have fun, but you have to watch them. They get too drunk and then, everybody's fighting. And they cheat at cards." 

Kayla giggled. "Cards? They play cards? You're kidding." She couldn’t imagine the two who tried to kidnap her sitting at a card table. 

"Sure they do." Del sat up and stretched. "They do everything humans do, just wilder and louder." He took a last bite of his apple, then threw the core aside. 

Wild. That’s what Lady Agnes said her husband-to-be was. Wild. Maybe he was a satyr. Kayla suddenly felt queasy. What would she do if he shifted into one of those? Scream? Run away? What was she going to do? 

"Del, I don't know what to do. If I go back, they'll marry me off." Going to town to find work seemed like a ridiculous idea now. As soon as her uncle found out, he'd come and force her back to his house. 

"It's your choice, Kayla." 

"But my mother can't stay at the house when I'm gone. She deserves a place of her own. My aunt has her there sewing her gowns. It should be the other way around." 

He sighed, then ran his fingers through his curly hair. "We'll figure it out. I wish you could stay here with me."

Read more about the books here: https://authordebbailey.com/paranormal-romance/

 

covers of the once upon a princess series


Saturday, February 17, 2024

Bring it Back(list) - Once Upon A Princess Series

Posted by: Deborah A Bailey

The Once Upon A Princess stories came to me in excerpts. Bits and pieces of the story ideas came to me but I didn't know what to do with them. Finally after a lot of drafts I figured out what the stories would be about for Heart of Stone and Beauty & the Faun. They both have Beauty & the Beast as an influence, and Cinderella too. Land of Dreams came later and was inspired by a friend of mine (also a book blogger and reviewer) who really liked the hero from Heart of Stone. So he got his own story. 

Two of the books are on sale for the month of February. Read about them below!

 Formula for Fairy Tale Love: 1 Adventurous Heroine + 1 Tortured-But-Noble Hero = Happily-Ever-After


"Heart of Stone:" Leesa trespasses into a haunted palace, where she meets a lonely gargoyle. Breaking the spell that cursed him may carry a price steeper than she's able…or willing…to pay.

On sale for 99 cents until Feb. 29th at Amazon, B&N, Apple & Kobo.


Read an excerpt:


Leesa headed up the stairs and stopped at the 2nd floor landing. Eduardo and Erokan's rooms had been on this floor. Dust was everywhere, but otherwise the furnishings were just as they'd been left. Varmont's bedroom, private study and library were on the 3rd floor. Most likely he would've hidden some of his valuables there. She went upstairs to check. The doors to the Duke's room, study and library were open. But the fourth door was closed. The treasure room, perhaps? 

She opened the door and stepped inside. Strangely, this room wasn't as dusty as the others. 
The air was heavy with perfume. Across from the door was a folding screen decorated with blue and yellow flowers. Behind it she could make out the base of a claw-foot tub. 

To her surprise, the entire room had a feminine feeling, from the huge bed covered with blush pink coverlets and plush furs to the gold-trimmed white furniture. Even the jewel-encrusted skylight above her had its own beauty, reflecting colorful sprinkles of light over the pale stone walls. 

A white cabinet with glass doors caught her attention. The shelves held glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Some had liquids inside, others were empty. What were these? Perfumes? Or maybe potions. 

The Duke used magic. Maybe this was where he'd kept his enchantments. Would they be worth anything? Possibly. But just as Leesa reached out to open the cabinet, the door slammed behind her. 

Startled, she spun around. She was alone. Who had closed it? Leesa ran to the door and gripped the handle, expecting the door to open as easily as it had when she'd come in. But it didn't. She pulled and banged on it, but it wouldn't budge.



"Beauty & the Faun:" Kayla flees an arranged marriage and falls for a faun shifter instead. But how can she ignore her duty by refusing to marry a prince?


On sale for 99 cents until Feb. 29th at Amazon, B&N, Apple & Kobo


Read an excerpt:

Kayla leaned against the tree, her legs drawn up. A flash of memory from her childhood came to her, reminding her that she'd once had days like this back when her father was alive. The forest had been home then, with the three of them in their small house on the edge of the woods. 

"Del, I've never met anyone like you," she said. "I haven't had a chance to have fun since my mother and I lived in the forest. I'm always working." 

"You lived in the forest?" he asked. 

"When my father was alive. But when he got sick and died, my mother and I moved in with my uncle and aunt." 

"That's too bad," Del said. "You must miss him." 

"I do. Do your parents live in the forest?" 

"No. They live in a big house. I live there too, sometimes. But I love it out here. I feel free. The forest folk are very open and welcoming." 

"Are there fairies here too?" Her father had talked about them, and how nice they were. 

"Of course." Del yawned. "They're a lot of fun." 

"Like satyrs?" she asked. She did want to know more about them. 

He chuckled. "Not quite. Satyrs are always wanting to drink and have fun, but you have to watch them. They get too drunk and then, everybody's fighting. And they cheat at cards." 

Kayla giggled. "Cards? They play cards? You're kidding." She couldn’t imagine the two who tried to kidnap her sitting at a card table. 

"Sure they do." Del sat up and stretched. "They do everything humans do, just wilder and louder." He took a last bite of his apple, then threw the core aside. 

Wild. That’s what Lady Agnes said her husband-to-be was. Wild. Maybe he was a satyr. Kayla suddenly felt queasy. What would she do if he shifted into one of those? Scream? Run away? What was she going to do? 

"Del, I don't know what to do. If I go back, they'll marry me off." Going to town to find work seemed like a ridiculous idea now. As soon as her uncle found out, he'd come and force her back to his house. 

"It's your choice, Kayla." 

"But my mother can't stay at the house when I'm gone. She deserves a place of her own. My aunt has her there sewing her gowns. It should be the other way around." 

He sighed, then ran his fingers through his curly hair. "We'll figure it out. I wish you could stay here with me."

Read more about the books here: https://authordebbailey.com/paranormal-romance/

 

covers of the once upon a princess series


Tuesday, February 13, 2024

New Release from PG Forte: Put a Ring Around the Rosie

Posted by: PG Forte

 My new book Put a Ring Around the Rosie is out today! This very short and sweet story is only lightly paranormal (sad to say, because I do love the spooky stuff) but, as with all the books in the Atlas Beach/Games We Play universe, all roads lead back to the Wild Geese Inn with its cursed-slash-enchanted (depending on your point of view) stone, its interfering ghosts and a boggart that, sadly, does not make an appearance in this book. (Not to fear, he'll be back!)

This is the first book in the third Games We Play story collection, Whole Latte Love. I hope to have a second story out later this year. Fingers crossed!


Put a Ring Around the Rosie

https://books2read.com/RingRosie


February 14th is just another day...until it's not.

 

They say timing is everything, and that certainly has always been the case where Alex and I are concerned. We met nearly two years ago when he was hired to work at Cup of Joe, the coffee shop where I was already an old timer. It was lust at first sight, at least on my part, but I had a boyfriend then, and so did he. By the time we were both single and I’d worked out that he was bi, things between us had become complicated in so many other ways that it seemed much simpler and safer to just stay friends.

We were work spouses for a while, and then we weren’t. And when we reconnected with each other last month it was after a prolonged period of hurt feelings and miscommunication during which we barely spoke to each other at all. 

 

Now, even though our friendship’s caught fire, so to speak, I feel like we’re both still recovering from that last, disconnected phase. Heaping a bunch of unrealistic expectations, or a need for chocolate hearts, plush toys, or rose colored anything on top of that seems like a little too much added pressure. 

Read an excerpt HERE

Monday, February 12, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday February 12, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday February 12, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:



Thursday February 8, 2024: Nicole Luiken treats us to a Blast from the Past with this post about her first published novel, Unlocking the Doors.


PG Forte's short and sweet NA novella releases tomorrow! It's a small-town, feel-good romance with a cursed stone, a magical kiss beneath the mistletoe, and two friends who finally find their way to being lovers just in time for Valentine's Day...what's not to like?

Put a Ring Around the Rosie

A Games We Play/Whole Latte Love Story

February 14th is just another day...until it's not!


Timing is everything. After three years, Rosie and Alex's friendship has finally caught fire. But is Valentine's Day too much, too fast? 



Read an excerpt HERE


Last few days on these special promos!

If you're curious about Ream Stories, the new subscription site for fiction, there isn't a better time to check it out. Almost 30 authors (mostly paranormal) have teamed up to offer new members a first month free to their introductory tiers. There's also a giveaway involved offering a grand prize of six months free subscription to any or all of the participating authors' sites. 

While not all the authors write paranormal, the majority of them do. Click on the link below for details. 




All the Valentine's Day goodness! Only 3 days more!




 The first Games We Play trilogy was the result of a Submission Call from one of my publishers, the much lamented Loose Id. (For more info, check out this blog post here: https://allieritch.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/loose-id-books/) The idea was to put together three linked stories, each of which had to take place around a Winter Holiday. I chose Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day, which, yes, stretched the definition of winter somewhat, but there were reasons!!!

In any event...usually I'd be posting about the first book, Truth or Dare, what with Valentine's Day coming up next week, but THIS YEAR Mardi Gras falls on February 13th--the same day that the latest Games We Play book is set to drop. So today, you get an excerpt from book two, instead.

Never Have I Ever

Games We Play 2.0

 

Kristy loves Luke but if anything was clear to her back when they were kids it was that gawky, awkward, tomboys didn't stand a chance with the king of the schoolyard. She watched her older brothers set their caps for Luke's glamorous cousins and get shot down. So she did what she had to in order to salvage her friendship with Luke. She hid her true feelings and her need for him to take control. 

 

Luke wants Kristy in the worst way -- actually, in all the worst ways: tied up, held down, beaten, bitten, whipped. But he knows he has no chance of ever having her. They'd been childhood friends and sweethearts, until she friend-zoned him in the fifth grade. He knows he can either keep her as a friend, or take her to bed and lose her forever. His biggest mistake—so far—was in hiring her to work alongside him in the bar he and his cousins inherited from their grandmother. He knows Kristy needs the money and the job, but Luke's self-control can't take the constant contact with the girl he wants to dominate–both in and out of the bedroom. Something has to give—and soon!


https://books2read.com/NeverEver


Excerpt:


The walk back to the inn itself didn’t take long. It was, in fact, just long enough for Luke to make up his mind, to decide on what fantasy he’d be getting off to tonight. It wasn’t even a fantasy, really. It was a memory of sorts. A dressed-up version of the night he’d come so close to having it all.

Had it really been ten years ago?

He’d been a senior in high school at the time, and Kristy had been a junior, so he guessed it had to have been. It was shortly after Thanksgiving—something else he remembered clearly because it was just a few days after he’d gotten back from spending the holiday weekend in Atlas Beach.

His family had moved to Bergen County, in the northern part of the state, four years earlier, when his mother had gotten a teaching position at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Technically, it was still New Jersey, but culturally it was almost a different planet. Or so it had felt at the time.

He remembered he’d been surprised when Kristy called him. Not because she never did; their phone conversations over the previous four years had helped him through several rough patches as he’d adjusted to his new community. No, what had surprised him was the timing. He’d only seen her a few days earlier.


“There’s this dance coming up at school,” Kristy said, in a tone that seemed to veer between nervous and annoyed. “Did I mention it last week?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay, well, it’s the junior class’s semiformal.”

“Your class?”

“Yes. And it’s scheduled for the Saturday before Christmas.”

“Uh-huh,” Luke replied unenthusiastically. Maybe, if he didn’t express much interest, she’d take the hint and stop talking about it. At the best of times, he didn’t like hearing about events he was missing in what he still considered his hometown. He especially didn’t want to hear about some dance she’d be attending without him.

As Kristy continued talking, Luke opened his desk drawer and took out the folder of sketches he kept hidden from his mother—pictures of naked women, tied up or in chains. He picked up a pencil, and as he half listened to Kristy talk, he added details to a half-finished picture.

“It’s going to be at the hotel. So I thought maybe someone there might have said something about it to you?”

“Nope.” Maybe they had, but if so, he hadn’t been listening then either.

“Okay, well, I’m on the decorating committee, and I think it’s gonna be really cool, you know?”

“Uh-huh,” he repeated, wondering why they were still on this subject. For that matter, why did she sound so weird, so…nervous, almost? Did she realize how much he hated this conversation? Nah, couldn’t be. Kristy was nicer than he was. If she knew she was making him unhappy, she’d stop. He added a gag to the picture.

“So, the thing is, it’s the kind of thing where the girls have to ask the boys.”

Luke’s pencil stilled. “Uh-huh.” What the fuck? She couldn’t be asking him out…could she? It had been her idea that they just stay friends. Did this mean she’d changed her mind? Or was she going to ask his advice on which of their friends she should go with instead? Maybe it was neither. Maybe she just wanted to talk. He sure hoped that was all it was.

“And, well, you know my father!” Kristy’s frustrated sigh vibrated through the phone, leaving Luke guiltily aware of the fact that he’d missed a critical part of the conversation.

“Sorry, I missed that. What did you say?”

The phone went silent. “What part did you miss?” Kristy asked in cautious tones.

Luke winced. “Everything after ‘the girls have to ask the boys,’” he admitted, steeling himself for Kristy’s reaction.

Kristy sighed. “I said, ‘my father will only let me go with someone he approves of.’”

“Well, that sucks,” Luke said, even though he was secretly—and selfishly—relieved.

“Yeah, so will you?”

“Will I what?”

“Will you go with me to the dance?” Kristy replied, then quickly added, “I mean, you don’t have to. It’s okay if you don’t want to. I just…well, it kinda sucks, that’s all, to put in all that work and not even see how it all turns out…”

“Wait. Didn’t you just… Are you saying your father approves of me?” Luke asked in disbelief. That couldn’t be right.

“He thinks you’re a good influence.”

“He does? Does he even know who I am?”

“Yes, Luke. He knows who you are. He knows your family. I guess he figures because you and Rocco are friends that you’re…I dunno. Safe, maybe?”

“Safe?”

“Or something, I guess.”

“He oughta talk to my mom.” Luke thought about that for a moment. “On second thought, no, he shouldn’t.”

“So…?”

Luke bit back a sigh. She didn’t want him as a boyfriend, but she didn’t mind using him as a sort of pretend boyfriend when she needed a date. Being there, surrounded by real couples, was going to suck. He had every right to be angry, every right to tell her no. But then she’d be disappointed. She’d have to stay home, or she’d find some other loser to go with—maybe someone every bit as “safe” as him. There was no way he was going to let that happen.

“What time do you want me to pick you up?” he asked, giving in to the inevitable.

“Really? You mean it?” Kristy practically squealed with happiness, which made Luke feel even more confused. Much as he liked being her hero, he kind of wished he’d been able to tease her a little more first. To drag it out. To make her beg. Maybe next time.

He sighed. “That’s what friends are for, right?”




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