Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Under the Rushes by Amy Lane

Ten years after Dorjan trusted a boy’s word over his superior officer’s, he and his best friend, Areau, are still living the aftermath—and trying to stop the man responsible. Locked in a careful dance to bring down a corrupt government, Dorjan struggles to balance his grief with Areau’s anger. Just when Dorjan reaches the end of his rope, he sees a familiar face in the shadows, and the boy he trusted a decade before offers him unexpected kindness.

Taern remembers the soldier who found him under the rushes and listened to his pleas to save his family. When Dorjan reappears in his life, Taern is both captured by his commitment to justice and terrified by the risks he takes. All Taern wants to do is fix him, but the oncoming destruction has been ten years in the making, and Dorjan doesn’t want his help. Not if it puts Taern at risk.

Powers clash and a world's fate dangles between Areau's madness and Dorjan's nobility. While Dorjan fights to save the world, Taern joins the battle simply to save Dorjan, knowing everything hinges on the heart of a man in armor and the strength of the man who loves him.

This is a tale of what happens when higher-ups make a decision that goes against everything you are all about and how the clean up is out of your hands.  But Dorjan is not about just roll over and accept what life has become.  His world is definitely not where he thought it would be but his determination to fix things is admirable.  Watching Dorjan and his best friend Areau, who is a shell of the boy he grew up with, tackle their enemies from inside is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Even if they think they are doing a fine job, it becomes pretty obvious to the reader that they need help and that help comes in the form of Taern and Krissa, prostitutes that have an uncanny way of being exactly what their counterparts need.  I would not label Under the Rushes as any kind of superhero story but if I am completely honest, there are most definitely moments that scream Batman, Robin, and their trusty butler Alfred.  Under is classic Amy Lane with a sci-fi twist that kept me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

Reviewer Note: I have to say that I don't really get the whole terminology of steampunk.  I know what it means and I know it is a sub-genre of science fiction but to me science fiction is science fiction, nothing more, nothing less.  As a reader, I will be putting this and others labeled steampunk on my science fiction library shelf but as a book blogger I will defer to the whole steampunk terminology labeling.  Just wanted to put that out there.


THE boy should not have been there.

Dorjan almost stopped short, but the phalanx behind him was wearing steam-enhanced walking armor, and the subsequent crash-up and bottleneck would literally cripple the army. Still, the boy was not supposed to be there.

Dorjan was nineteen. He’d enlisted two years earlier, because the age of consent was sixteen, and he’d wanted to finish his university studies before he joined to serve his province. He was young, brilliant, and well trained. He’d also practiced for hours while using the steam-enhanced walking armor, and he had a few tricks the commanding officers were not aware of.

Fluidly, using some well-honed muscles he was justly proud of, he stepped sideways, taking all of the forward inertia of the steam system to propel both his armor and his body and redirect it. After two smooth steps, he disconnected the main copper tube tugging at the back of his neck, sending the steam into the frosty autumn evening. His armor suddenly drooped around him, pulling him down like weights in a quagmire. Of course, part of that might have had to do with the spongy ground and the tricky bits of gravity that rolled through the Karanos province.

The gravity was, in fact, one of the reasons Dorjan’s government, the Forum of Biemansland, had refused to quell this threat of usurpation until the steam armor was perfected. Dorjan’s friend Areau had participated in that development—in the development of most of the army’s new technology—and was justly proud of his creation.

The gravity was behaving at the moment, and that was good, because the steam armor without the steam weighed a bloody ton… but still.

The boy was not supposed to be there.

He was young—nine at the most—and Dorjan wouldn’t have noticed him, except his hair was blacker than sin-stained pitch, and he was hiding in some rushes that had gone brown with the chill of the season. The off color had caught Dorjan’s attention first, but as they’d made to pass, he’d seen the eyes—almost that same black, he thought, but then they glinted midnight blue.

And that was when Dorjan broke formation.

He squatted down next to the rushes and looked curiously into them. The boy had reached that age where his arms and legs were too long in proportion to his body, and his hands and feet were even longer still. But in spite of that protuberance of limbs and predominance of elbows and knees, he seemed small for his age, and quick, and the look he cast Dorjan was unfriendly and cautious but not frightened.

“What’re you doing here, boy?” Dorjan asked before he grimaced and lifted his visor so the boy could see his face. Bimuit, what a disaster. “There were to be no people here. We’re destroying a building, that is all.”

The boy’s eyes grew huge. “A building? The only building is mine!”

Dorjan frowned and tried to speak nine-year-old boy. “Yours—you mean you have a hut around here?”

The boy’s mouth pulled up in a sneer, and too late Dorjan recognized the fineness of his clothes: small-weave linen with leather patches at the elbows, and boots that were supple and had two buckles on the sides. “A hut? I’m not a bloody peasant, you prat bastard! You’re heading for Kiamath Keep—I live there. That’s the only place this road leads!”


Dorjan swore to himself and looked up at his lokogos. “Yes, Lokogos Dre!”

“What are you doing out of ranks? Your battalion has gone on without you!”

Dorjan frowned at the man and gestured to the boy. “He says we’re not heading to a weapon stockpile,” he told the man, feeling lost. The stratego had been most clear—Dorjan had been in the room when he’d briefed Dorjan’s superiors. He’d said they were eliminating a weapons stockpile and that there should be no civilian casualties. It would be a righteous victory, Stratego Alum Septra had proclaimed, one they could be proud of.

It was, Dorjan knew, the only reason Areau had agreed to work so many sleepless nights on the armor. He wanted peace. Hell, all of the citizen soldiers wanted peace. It was the banner under which they’d enlisted. As young as he’d been, Dorjan had plowed through his studies like he was being ridden by a steam-powered nisket so he could enlist in the damned army and fight for peace.

The lokogos swung down off his mechanized cricket and flat-handed the spot right behind the creature’s ear. “Not a stockpile?”

To his credit, he sounded stunned.

“That’s my home!” the boy shouted, and Dorjan was right—he wasn’t stupid. “You’re taking all these scary people to my home? And the company that went before?”

Dorjan blinked at him, the full horror of the situation descending. His company was supposed to ride cleanup. Areau was probably approaching the compound now with the stratego, the better to simply destroy the place so Dorjan’s company could put out the fire and keep destruction to the surrounding marshland to a minimum.

“Lokogos!” Dorjan said, suddenly fearing.

“Connect your armor,” the lokogos muttered. “Connect it. Now. Get on the cricket—I said get on!”

Dorjan looked at the boy. “Boy,” he muttered numbly, “stay here.” He looked at the lokogos, who nodded. “Stay hidden. I’m going to try and stop a disaster, you hear me?”

The boy’s face had frozen, and for the first time, Dorjan saw fear. “My mum?” he said, sounding shocked. “My da? My wee baby sisters—there’s three of them! You monsters wouldn’t hurt the wee babies, would you?”

Dorjan didn’t know how to answer that. Two minutes ago he would have said no, but now? They’d been told no casualties. They’d been told a bloodless exercise—a warning shot. How could this intelligence they’d been given be so wrong?

He reconnected the steam pipe at the back of his neck and threw his leg over the cricket. He lifted his arse just so, plopped his bottom down, and felt the steam jack of the cricket fit into the port in the armor, and suddenly the generator that made the armor so heavy was now powering them both.

“Hide, boy,” he shouted and pointed the cricket toward the south, where Areau’s regiment had been heading. He rubbed his hands flat down the back of the cricket’s head. The legs—useful for hopping among the burdocks of weeds in the swamp—suddenly folded behind the cricket’s metal body, and the big rubber-gum covered wheels descended and began to whirr.

The lokogos shouted through his amplifier for the entire battalion to adjust right, and a corridor opened down the road on the left. Dorjan closed his eyes, said a prayer, and thumped twice on the cricket’s head to ride at full speed ahead.

It was a nightmarish ride, made worse by the cricket’s speed and its tendency to leap whenever an obstacle appeared. If Dorjan hadn’t been jacked into the generator port, he would have been thrown, and sometimes, in his worst moments afterward, he wished he had been. But that night, hurtling across the dirt road and through space, he still believed in honor and that this entire debacle was just an honest mistake.

The cricket arrived at Kiamath Keep after a particularly hairy bound. Dorjan actually had to close his eyes at the sight of battalion after battalion marching upon what he could see clearly from this vantage point was exactly what the boy had said: a compound, a simple keep, much like the one Dorjan had been brought up in. It wasn’t an armory, it was a country town house designed to cater to the farmers who were supported by the landholders, who did their duty in the Forums and Triaris of town.

It was a large farm with perhaps ten to twenty families. From the cricket’s terrible height, Dorjan had seen the people huddled against the walls of the compound, the better for the metal arrows of the infantry to miss them. He looked down at the beginning of the cricket’s descent and quickly surveyed the chaos of the night. It was war, filled with the magnesium flares of soldiers preparing to launch munitions, the shouts of the techs performing maintenance on their armor, and the scream of metal and gears as the machines of war defied inertia and began the slow hurtle to murderous momentum. Dorjan landed directly in front of the other crickets in the battalion, pretty sure of what he’d find: the three lokogos as well as Stratego Alum Septra, the man who had brought wars to the borders of Biemansland.

“Stop!” Dorjan screamed, ripping off his visor so they could see not just the insignia of lokargo on his uniform but the human behind it, and the commanding officers all stopped in what looked to be a last-minute conference and stared at the boy wearing lokargo insignia and riding a lokogos’s cricket.

“Boy, you’d better have some explanation as for what in the hell—”

“It’s not a munitions warehouse!” Dorjan cried, gesturing to the castle walls, especially the fortifications with very worried-looking people on the ramparts. “Aren’t you people looking? I could see it myself from the cricket—it’s a keep! There are women and children in there!”

Dorjan would remember that moment. The three lokogos, they looked surprised and skeptical, their faces frozen in the glare and flicker of the magnesium torches and the arc-welding that was going on in the chaos of setting up for battle.

But Stratego Alum Septra? Dorjan saw his face, saw the way his mouth quirked up at the corners, saw the calculation in his eyes.

“You know!” Dorjan shouted, and Alum drew twenty years as stratego and counselor around his shoulders and lied.

“I know nothing of the sort, and I don’t believe you either.”

The three lokogos all jerked back, stunned, because now they were fucked. They could either believe the raw young lokargo or they could believe their stratego. What were they to do?

“Who gave you permission to ride a cricket?” the youngest lokogos demanded. Even Dorjan could tell he was dodging the point.

“My lokogos!” Dorjan snapped. “Even he felt this was important information!”

“Who told you this?” the stratego asked. “Why would you break formation, Lokargo, to learn intelligence that is obviously above your pay grade?”

Dorjan’s jaw hardened. “A child,” he said, making sure his eyes never left Septra’s. “A child who was afraid we were going to slaughter his family, because his family occupied the only dwelling within walking distance of the damned army! Now are you people too damned lazy to even get on your lousy crickets and look? Or are you so sure of your souls that you’ll risk demolishing innocent people for politics?”

The lokogos looked at each other uneasily, and for a moment Dorjan thought he might actually have their attention. And that’s when he saw Stratego Alum Septra push a button on the side of his cricket while the lokogos were all looking at each other in confusion. Suddenly the chaos of the battlefield was silenced as a single massive flare launched up in the eerie quiet. It was burning so brightly that its shallow arc—designed to descend a mere half klick away—could hardly be seen.

Dorjan gazed at Alum Septra in horror, seeing him for the first time. A handsome man with a long jaw and silver hair pulled back into a smooth queue, he wore his dress uniform trappings over his armor for what was supposed to be nothing more than a training exercise.

He looked, Dorjan thought in shock, like a man dressed for the copper glyph that would make him famous.

“Oh dear,” Septra said urbanely. “It seems that even if you’re right, you arrived a moment too la—”

Dorjan didn’t hear what else he said, because he had launched his own cricket straight up into the air, preparing the same flare Septra had launched—but preparing it to fire at the flare that was still gracefully arcing toward the innocent civilians in the compound.

“Can you do this?” he asked the cricket. The machine, which knew only what it had been programmed with, circled the probability dial slowly, even as they hovered in the air.

Dorjan looked at the dial and swallowed: 15 percent probability.

“Then do it,” he muttered and pushed the same panel Septra had.

The magnesium bomb traveled a lot faster and a lot straighter than Septra’s, and it connected, but not solidly, sending both projectiles spinning wildly into the brush beyond the castle.

There was an explosion so bright he closed his eyes behind the tinted goggles of his visor and barely had time to open them again to sight the cricket’s landing plane.

By the time the cricket touched down, the fire sparked by the magnesium bombs in the dry grasses of the autumn bogland had turned the horizon a fiery bronze-blood red.

The cricket landed hard and Dorjan was tossed off, his armor disengaging and pummeling his body as he landed. Without the steam to provide a cushion and protection, he knocked about inside the metal plating like a plum in a steel box. Odds were good he’d be the same color the next day, but it didn’t matter. He was running on adrenaline now, and he’d actually pulled himself up off the ground and was looking wildly around before the golden-haired god of his childhood intruded on his tinted vision.

“Bimuit and Karanos!” Areau thunked a wide-palmed hand on Dorjan’s shoulder and was hauling him around—probably to tackle him and pummel him some more, knowing Areau’s temper.

Dorjan yanked off his visor and goggles before he could try, and fought for breath. “People!” he gasped. “There are people in the keep!”

Areau stopped with his fist hauled back behind his ear and became a focused beam of stillness in the mayhem of the night. “People?”

“It’s a keep, Areau! There’re families in there, probably ten or so—they’re huddled away from the safety arrows—”

Areau looked up to see the blood-bronze flare of light, and a sudden new wave of bedlam washed over the battlefield. “Bimuit! Dorjan, the fire is heading right for them!”

They locked eyes, a lifetime of understanding between them. Dorjan’s father, Kyon, ruled the keep, but Areau’s father was his right-hand man. Their keep had been one of the most productive of Biemansland until the war had forced them to strip away most of their gain in the form of taxes, and there was nothing—horses, lessons, their first girl, Dorjan’s first kiss with a boy—that the two of them had not shared in their hearts.

They shared this too, without even a word.

Dorjan vaulted to the back of the battered cricket and made sure his port was securely attached. It was difficult to get in—the port had been bent with the fall—but he wiggled in and offered Areau his hand.

“I’ll vault the children out,” he called as Areau swung his leg up over the cricket. “You get the officers near the gate to help you with the others.”

“Deal!” Areau’s arms tightened around Dorjan’s middle, and for a moment Dorjan was reminded of the helpless, useless torch he’d carried for his best friend since he’d first kissed a boy and decided they were more fun than girls. Areau had undergone no such revelation, and Dorjan closed his eyes and hoped it wasn’t the guilt, Areau’s ever-present fear that Dorjan’s disappointment would sever their two hearts that so often beat together.

The cricket bounded up into the aether and landed solidly square in the middle of the courtyard.

Oh God. They were terrified. Without knowing what he was searching for, Dorjan found three girls, their hair as black as pitch and night sky, and thought of the boy, the scrappy, arrogant kid on the side of the road. He lifted up his visor as Areau scrambled down off the cricket, and called out to them.

“There’s a magnesium fire on its way! Give me the children—I’ll lift them out. Areau will try to get the adults out through the gate. We’re sorry—we thought this place was empty. Please… please let us help you.”

The mother had the same black hair and midnight eyes in the pale face, and the father was whippet thin and brown haired, so his blue eyes were surprising. They came up together with their daughters and about half a score of other children under twelve gathered before them.

“Please,” the mother whispered. “Please—can you?”

Dorjan nodded. Areau had slid off and was herding the adults under the ramparts, where the first wave of infantry had been stationed. Dorjan could hear his voice, commanding, strong, thundering over the objections of the lokogos there, but that was not his job. He had to trust in Areau as Areau had trusted in him from the moment they’d first enrolled in the academy.

“We have a son!” the father protested as the mother shoved her girls up behind Dorjan. Dorjan pulled at leather harnesses attached to the exoskeleton of the cricket. The harnesses were hidden under the top plate of armor but could be pulled out for passengers, and the mother and father used them to secure the girls.

“Make the attachment logical!” he warned. “I need to let them off so I can come back for the rest of the children!”

The father nodded, and he seemed an able man. “About our son—”

“He’s the one who told us your keep was occupied,” Dorjan said. “When I left him, he was safe.” His mouth quirked up, because that could have been the only bright spot in what was surely career suicide even if he and Areau survived. “Angry, but safe.”

The parents nodded, and Dorjan looked behind him. “Hold tight!” he ordered tersely, hoping the girls were secure. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the fire or his own fractured imagination, but he was sweating inside his armor, and the fire-illumined faces of the girls seemed flushed as well. “One, two, three!”—and with that, the cricket took its biggest leap yet.

The girls didn’t scream. He checked twice in flight behind them, and they were wide-eyed and looking past the brutal wind at their surroundings. The steam armor had served his battalion well, and Dorjan saw his own men, led by the lokogos who had given him the cricket, racing down the road as if to help. He aimed for them and landed in front of his surprised lokogos before he turned to help the girls slide off the cricket in his hurry to get back.

“What in the furry asscrack of Bieman….” Lokogos Dre stopped his swearing when he realized there were children on board, and Dorjan was so grimly determined to finish out his task he didn’t even smile.

“The stratego tried to blow the place after I told him,” Dorjan snapped tersely. “I kept the mag-bomb from landing, but the whole bloody bogland is on fire. Where’s the boy?”

Dre grimaced. “Wriggled out of my grasp as soon as you took off! Said he couldn’t trust you to do the job right.”

Dorjan found he was growling, mostly because it was true. “These are his sisters. I’ll be back with more. This could end badly for us, you understand?”

Lokogos Dre nodded. “I didn’t sign on to slaughter children,” he said. “You neither, even though you are one. You get them here; I’ll keep ’em safe. Their parents?”

Dorjan looked toward the keep and shuddered. “Lokargo Areau—with munitions. He’s getting the parents out. Ready?”

“Bimuit’s luck!” the lokogos wished, and Dorjan thumped his closed fist against his chest even as he bade the cricket to jump.

His next visit to the keep, it wasn’t his imagination—the fire was moving quickly and it was moving mercilessly. He’d seen the tech battalions hosing down their own environs with flame retardant, but he wasn’t a fool. They were staying carefully beyond the keep. Alum Septra was going to let those people burn, and take credit for the kill.

Not if Dorjan could help it.

The second time at the keep, the parents must have been as frantic as Dorjan—they shoved even more children up on the cricket’s back—five this time, two of them hanging precariously over the sides. “You can hold on?” he asked, and he believed their frantic nods because he had to. Up, up, and away he bounded, giving thanks under his breath when the little ones proved good to their word. He stared at the keep and the closing flames, not even speaking to Lokogos Dre as the man unharnessed the frightened children. (They had held on, but this batch had screamed, and two of the girls, tiny and terrified, were screaming still when he lifted off again.)

He landed in the courtyard, feeling his armor heat so badly his skin blistered beneath it, and saw that the children were drooping, semiconscious, in their parents’ arms.

“Where’s Areau!” he called, wincing as one of the smallest screamed upon touching the heated metal of the stressed cricket. Without a word, the lady of the keep ripped off her nightdress and stood, fat and middle-aged and bare in the center of the courtyard, so she could swaddle the boy from the heat. Her husband was not far behind with his own sleep tunic.

“Is that all?” Dorjan called, lifting his visor so they could talk.

The adults nodded, and two people came from the shadows with lengths of wet muslin in buckets that were already beginning to steam. “Areau!” he called. “Areau! What’s your status!”

He heard a hacking and Areau stumbled from the doorway. “We’re using a blow torch to get through the gate. They won’t help us open it, the fucking gits, but they’ve promised not to kill us if we get through!” Pained voices cheered beyond the ramparts, and Areau looked up and nodded. “Go—go, Dori! I’ll be there! I swear! We’ll face the Triari together, you and I, Bimuit’s luck!”

Dorjan reached down, seized Areau’s hand, and pulled him close with their clasped hands between them. They touched foreheads and Dorjan muttered, “Bimuit’s luck!” before he straightened and bounded upward one more time.

He barely avoided the magnesium missile that had been aimed and waiting for his exit from the keep. He pulled the steering stick to the right frantically, then pounded at the two stabilizer wheels on either side of the board to keep the thing from rolling in midair. The children screamed as the magnesium seared their skin and the heat choked their lungs. His armor protected him to an extent, but the five children bound to the back of the great metal beast—

He cried out as one of them slipped off and went tumbling down, and then another. Bimuit, oh hells! Two of them, and then a third, but she didn’t even scream, and he wondered if she hadn’t been dead or unconscious before she fell.

“No!” he cried. “No! Hells, Bimuit! Hold on! Oh hold on!” The cricket hurtled downward, preparing its legs for landing, and he saw that one of them was frozen, unable to support weight. He had just enough time to scream, “Jump!” as the cricket tumbled to the ground.

The children landed painfully on the soft bogland, but he was attached to the cricket. It thudded hard, throwing him against the windscreen before rolling over him twice, the force so great he felt his bones give and his skin split. He screamed in pain, and the cries of the children answered him, so for a moment he felt relieved—at least some had survived. The cricket twitched, rolling off of him, and he screamed again. With the cricket gone, he had a clear view of the keep, and now he screamed in rage.

He saw the final magnesium bomb arc gracefully into the air and fall and hit the keep, and he was still screaming as the inferno destroyed it all.

WHEN he stood before the Triari, he stood alone.

He’d been scooped off the battlefield in fractured pieces and had spent a month in recovery. Lokogos Dre was his first visitor.

“Lokargo,” the lokogos said tentatively, “it’s good to see you’re recovering.” He looked both ways in the infirmary, but Dorjan was the only one there. He’d been removed to a special ward for military criminals, and the gauze sheets separated him from… nobody. Not even nurses and doctors, whom he saw when it was necessary, but not enough to know them as people.

“The children?” Dorjan mouthed, because he was not sure how much anybody knew. Nobody would tell him.

Dre looked left and right and removed his cap, revealing blond hair cut short but not shaved. “Smuggled to my father’s keep,” he murmured. “Before we could get to you, Septra’s personal battalion ran in, calling you a war criminal and saying you were responsible for the deaths of our men.” Dre glared about him again. “This is the only military hospital anywhere near the Biemansland-Karanos border, and Bimuit, boy, I swear the only other person besides you is a boy with diarrhea. It’s a ruse, sure enough, to explain why we were trying to take out that keep.”

“Why were we trying to take out that keep?” Dorjan asked before the one thing he really wanted answered superseded the strategy of the people falsely accusing him. “And where the hell is Areau?”

He saw the tentative look of sorrow on Dre’s face and knew his heart was about to fail.

“He’s not—”

“No!” Dre muttered, and again, that fearful look about the place. “He suffered wounds—he was trying to drag the last of the people out when the mag-bomb hit. I heard him screaming as they carried him away, but he was still alive. As far as I know, they’ve taken him into the asylum in Thenis.”

Dorjan tried to scowl through the pounding in his head. “Thenis? Bimuit! Why there? That place is… it’s bedlam! Are they healing him, if he was hurt? Why would they shove him in that place?” His whole body ached and his soul most of all, but this… oh, God, Areau, who had followed him out of the same sense of duty Dorjan had been instilled with. “Why? Why would they shove him there?”

Dre leaned closer. “Don’t you see? They don’t think he has people—they think you’re it. Now see, I’ve been to your father’s hold. I know how it works there. You all have the mines, and the niskets, and that alone is a bond there, and you share that with the miners and the farmers and everybody. Areau’s yours, like kin, and I’ve sent word to your father, so he’s probably working on it, but he’s working on it legal.”

Dorjan remembered Lokogos Dre, back when the man was a young lokargo, seeking shelter at his parents’ keep on his way to his own keep, which was even farther out from Thenis, the principal city. “Why is that wrong?” he asked, and Dre’s look of pity would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Don’t you see? What they were doing? That wasn’t legal. Septra got found out—he’s not going to be happy, and he’s going to pin it on you and on your friend there, and on me—”

“No.” Dorjan looked at him and shook his head, his heart pattering against his ribs. “We can’t allow them to pin it on you, Dre. We’ll lie first to keep you there. We need an honest man in the army. Did this… this hieterfuck do it for Septra? Was he promoted to Triari?”

“No—which probably steamed him right through his armor plates, if you ask me. He had a reporter with a copper glyph and a wax mold for his phonograph, all ready to make a talking head for his announcement. He’s putting it about that two young cadets committed treason on his watch—which sends your credibility into the privy, but it’s not looking so great for him either. He’s not Triari, not yet. In fact, I think it put him down on the list. The other rumor is that he led us into an ambush, and there’s even another, that’s the truth, that has civilians in that keep.” Dre had pulled up a chair, his crisp brown uniform practically bending like pasteboard as he sat. He had gold braid at his shoulders, but he was, as far as Dorjan could tell, missing some of an officer’s treasured pins at his breast. No, Dre had not done well by this, but he hadn’t complained of it either.

Dorjan nodded. “We need you,” he said quietly, his brain churning steadily ahead. When Areau had been working on the steam armor with the other military alchemists, Dorjan had told him once that he wished someone could connect a steam pipe to his brain so it could move in those lovely, fitful leaps and bounds, like the soldiers in their armor and the transpo crickets. Areau had laughed and cuffed him in the ear. Your brain works fine and solid as it is. No leaping about for Dori’s brain—need to keep it on the true way and have it steamroll any shite that lies in the path before it. “We need you,” he repeated, his thoughts finding their purchase in the uneven ground of maybe.

“For what?” Dre asked, but he asked it eagerly.

Dorjan wished his head would stop pounding, and the breaks in both arms and legs and his ribs and his chest, but he began to form a plan around the pain. “We need to stop him,” Dorjan said. “If he’s not losing his commission for this, sooner or later, he will be the Triari—that must be it! The power, the money—”

“The way out of harm’s way,” Dre grumbled, and Dorjan remembered the man’s cowardly act of launching the mag-bomb.

“That too,” he agreed. “So he wants on the Triari, and we need to stop him, and to do that, we need information.”

Dre nodded. “So what’s your plan?”

Dorjan sighed. “Well, I’ll tell them I rescued the children and gave them to a soldier—a deserter. If you can fabricate a name for me, that would help. But I’ll sell them that pile of slop and tell them I stole your cricket—”

“Didn’t you already tell them I gave it to you?” Dre asked, upset, and Dorjan barely managed to tilt his bandaged head sideways.

“Do you think they’ll gainsay me?” he asked crossly. “If they try it, they’ll have to admit I told them civilians were in the keep, and at the moment, I think they’re trying to ignore that part altogether. So I saved the children, gave them to someone untrustworthy, and I have no idea where they are. I knocked you cold after we found the boy—what happened to the boy?”

Dre snorted. “I told you—he ran off. I’ve had soldiers looking for him too, but no luck. Not in Karanos, not in Biemansland—I don’t know if he’d manage to make it to any of the other provinces. He was only a wee boy.”

Dorjan remembered the boy’s assurance, his pride, and would have shrugged if his wounds had let him. “I’ll have to believe he made it,” he said, not wanting to think about the three of the five children who hadn’t made that last trip on the cricket. “I have to.” And it was nothing less than the truth.

“So we save your job, and then my father and I, we’ll have to find out where Areau is, and get him back and—”

They both stopped. They heard footsteps coming, purposeful and impersonal. A doctor, shrouded in white, with a white cloth helmet and white cloth mask, peered around the corner. “Your time is up, Lokogos. The… lokargo is resting.” The man’s contempt was unmistakable.

Dre stood up and leaned forward. “We’ll find your friend, boy. You save my job, I’ll make myself useful, worry not.” With that, he turned to the contemptuous doctor. “That boy has saved more people in one act than you have in your entire life, you quack—you treat him right or I’ll have you transferred to the Thenis asylum, you hear me?”

And with that, Dre was gone, and Dorjan was left to wonder how long until someone who could help him write a letter would visit.

A MONTH later he stood in his basic lokargo’s uniform—pressed brown pants, burnt-umber jacket, silver braid at the shoulders, and a hexagonal cap with a stiff brim—and gave testimony to the three governing Triari of the Biemansland province.

To say it was a travesty of justice was to say mag-bombs burned hot.

The three Triari were elected from the rulers of the individual keeps, and occasionally from someone who had distinguished him or herself in the military. In this case there were two men and a woman, all landowners, in their late middle age, who all wore the traditional togas (the woman deferred to the late fall by wearing a white sweater beneath hers) and crowns of oak. All three surveyed Dorjan dispassionately as he stood, with aid of a cane, and answered their questions without pause, without a chair, and without even a glass of water offered as a courtesy.

His father would say later that he’d never been prouder of Dorjan than on the day he destroyed his life.

“So, Dorjan, son of Kyon, what do you have to say for yourself?”

It felt like the sixth time (his father said it was the twelfth) that the question had been asked.

“There were civilians in the keep—”

“That’s never been verified.”

“Nobody wanted to verify it,” Dorjan snapped bitterly. “And you’ve successfully buried the other lokargo who would have.” He was aching and exhausted and tired of courtesy and worried for Areau. They had located him—and Dorjan’s father had smuggled an honest-to-aether healer into the ward to make sure he didn’t die of infection (or a lead pipe to the head)—but so far they hadn’t been able to smuggle him out.

The healer said Areau needed to come out. His wounds had healed, but they’d been mishandled and had scarred terribly. The healer danced around Areau’s state of mind, but Dorjan knew—without even seeing him again—that the playful, brilliant friend of his boyhood was never going to smile into Dorjan’s eyes again.

“We are aware of Lokargo Areau’s difficulties,” the woman said, and she lowered her voice gently. “We understand that the disaster that killed so many of your men had a terrible effect on his mental health.”

“None of our men died,” Dorjan responded crossly. “I don’t know where they’ve been reassigned, but before my cricket crashed, they’d effectively sprayed the fire-retardant bubble. Those battalions were going to be fine! But the civilians in the keep—they were going to die!”

“Are you saying the stratego and three lokogos all lied about the casualties of Kiamath Keep?”

“I’m saying I landed that cricket, told them there were civilians in the keep, and the stratego fired a magnesium charge at the keep without even resolving the issue!”

There was a breathless silence because this had not been part of the questioning.

“That’s impossible,” the oldest Triari stated. “If that charge had gone off, there wouldn’t have been any children to rescue!”

“I shot the charge out of the air, Triari—how do you think the fire started?”

That airless, motionless void again, and then the youngest Triari—the other man—cried out in amazement. “That’s impossible!”

There was a murmur in the Council Forum, and Dorjan’s face heated. “The cricket set the probability at 15 percent,” he mumbled.

That silence grew weighted and unhappy, and he looked up into the faces of the Triari and saw three people caught in a sudden agonizing conundrum.

“Why would he do that?” the youngest Triari mumbled. “Why would he fire on an occupied keep?”

The other two looked at him, and the oldest spoke next, his jaw hardening—but not with resolve. As Dorjan grew in wisdom and politics, he recognized that look more and more. He was a man who feared something he believed was too big for his own comprehension.

“He wouldn’t,” the man said, and even though his voice lacked conviction, the other two nodded in agreement.

Dorjan let out a wordless bark of a laugh, and the three Triari were suddenly a united front.

“Is there anything funny about this, young man?”

Dorjan shook his head and let the fury shake in his voice. “There is nothing funny about people who fear the truth so badly that they paint a thin lie on a flame bubble and pretend it’s a steel wall.”

He watched their mouths open and close in shock and indignation, and suddenly the only thing he could hear was a burbling, hearty laughter. The laugher was joined by another, and another, and when Dorjan looked up, his father was wiping tears from his eyes and the battalion of men Dorjan had led—who had not been allowed to testify, not even Lokogos Dre, who had sent him missives all week saying that he would come out and tell the truth, planning be damned—were all barking bitter, angry laughter at the Triari.

The lead Triari smashed his gavel on the marble stone several times, demanding order, and finally he snapped, “Bimuit’s balls, Kyon, what in the name of steel and stone are you laughing at?”

Dorjan’s father sobered abruptly. “You, Archon! You’re going to rob my boy of his commission and his good name on pretense, and the whole Forum—the entire lot of us—saw when you realized it was a lie. I’m laughing because you’ll carry it through out of false pride. I’m laughing because when this country is plunged into warfare and ruin in ten years, only the people in this room will know you could have saved us.”

The Triari blushed. “You do not own so much land that we can’t remove you from council,” he thundered.

Kyon stood. “Try it,” he said softly, “and see how fat your coffers grow without your sulfur and your bronze and your lumium and coal all mined from a rolling gravity rock tethered in the aether. My blood and I know the secrets to the asteroid mines, and nobody in this room will get it from us. I dare you to remove us and see how bloated your precious state grows when you’re deprived of our resources. If you don’t have the stones for that, I suggest you make sure me and mine always have a seat.” Kyon bowed low and deeply. “I’m sorry, my son. I will not watch you be tortured at the whim of fools. I’m going to go do something about the one thing that causes you the most pain. Your men will bear you to the town house—I have a rabbit ready.”

Kyon bowed again, and Dorjan took several deep breaths and battled the heat behind his eyes. His father loved him—of that there had never been in doubt, not when he’d been found in the pantry kissing Areau’s cousin and not when he’d joined the military. There had been some surprise on both occasions, some fear for him in his chosen path, but no disgust and no ultimatums. His father had said it was a good thing he had Dorjan’s older sister to keep up the niskety blood, and, in the case of the kissing, had looked meaningfully at Areau’s cousin and told him he might need to come by another day. After that, he and Dorjan had spent a quiet afternoon baking pies of all things. Pie was, after all, why his father had come to the pantry in the first place. Eventually the pie had been eaten, and his father had talked gently of politics and of things Dorjan must not reveal except to a chosen few.

“Like Areau?” Dorjan had asked anxiously.

Kyon had nodded and wiped more flour across his broad-cheeked, perspiring face. Dorjan had his father’s bull chest, square jaw, and almond-shaped brown eyes but his mother’s narrow cheekbones and small, even nose—this combination was pleasing, he had realized early, even to young men. His father, too, was handsome, and although he was broad and heavy with age, Dorjan had always thought of him as vital. The laugh in the Forum had been like him, and the blunt speech had too.

His allusion to getting Areau out of the asylum was as subtle as he got, and Dorjan was grateful. He had felt the power of his father’s support, and now he could do without it. As long as Areau could come home.

AREAU did not come home that night. The men of Dorjan’s battalion helped him into the rabbit when the Triari were done with him, and one climbed inside with him. The interior of the mechanical palanquin was fitted with cushions and a nice supportive chair, all in dark navy and tan, and it enclosed the two of them in a comforting, gauze-covered shell. There was barely a quiver to the palanquin as the rabbit lowered its mechanical back legs to the ground, and the two in-line rubber wheels, much like the cricket’s, made contact with the rail. Dorjan allowed his junior officer to key in their destination. The Triari had done pretty much what his father had predicted, and he was weary beyond words.

He fell asleep as the rabbit bore him to his family’s Thenis town house, and was not aware of the chair folding out to a couch and lowering into a bank of pillows. He awoke when his father entered the rabbit with a steaming bowl of sweetened grain mixed with fruit, and rolled him gently awake.

“Dori—Dori, son, I need you to wake up.”

Dorjan rolled over and groaned, cursing the damned bones and joints, which were still sore after a month. He’d visited the niskets briefly after his stay in the hospital, but he certainly couldn’t bring them from Kyon’s Gate to the city. The tiny, secret beings were exceptional healers, even if sometimes their idea of healing was harrying a body out of bed before said body felt truly rested. At least when they did that, they flickered and buzzed around the offending muscles and rubbed the stiffness out. This was just his father with breakfast, and most likely unwelcome news as well.

“What do we have to do?” he asked, startling fully awake and taking the sweet-grain because he was soldier enough to know his body needed fuel.

Kyon’s jaw was set grimly, and he shook his head. “Something’s happening with Areau—either tonight or tomorrow. They’re moving him, doing some sort of radical treatment on him—something. Did I miss anything yesterday?”

“They kicked me out of the military,” Dorjan said brightly, even though it had stung at that moment and ached now like an amputated limb. He had wanted to serve people. He’d been born to position, but his father never let him forget he needed to honor that. That’s why he’d gone into the military when the government had talked about the threat from the west. After the derision of his peers over his father’s refusal to overmine the asteroids, he had wanted to serve. Now it felt as though the privilege had been cut from his future like a leg with a festering wound.

“But…,” Kyon said, and Dorjan had to remind himself that his father was, had always been, smarter. Not just smarter than Dorjan but smarter than the politicians, smarter than the businessmen—just smarter. He was a good man—a jovial man—but very often he stated the truth of things when the less astute preferred not to see it. As Dorjan grew older, he realized his father made enemies because of that. The floundering, the incompetent, the entitled—a man like his father, a fat, jolly man who had gotten his hands dirty in his own mines, was beneath them.

How dare he know more about the world?

“But what?” Dorjan asked carefully.

“Did they take you out of the succession, boy?”

Dorjan’s eyes widened. “No! No. Why would they?” Dorjan wouldn’t be the first disgraced landowner’s son to inherit his legacy regardless.

Kyon nodded thoughtfully. “Because they think they can use Areau to control you. They know you want him, and they want you to dance to their tune. But they can’t keep him there without a reason. It’s… it’s a bad moment for your friend, Dori, make no mistake.”

Dorjan shoveled a spoonful of fuel into his mouth and swallowed. “Fine, Da. What do we need to do?”

THEY wore white robes with the cloth helmet that covered the face, and snuck in through the back, where some of the staff would sit outside, smoke their chinkly pipes, and relax during shifts. Not a soul watched or cared as Dorjan, his father, and the mercenary physician they’d hired strode in through the kitchen while meal preparation was in full swing.

Of course, if they were working half as hard at keeping their gullets from rising in their throats as Dorjan had to, they wouldn’t have much left in them to notice. Feaugh! What a stench! Dorjan thought of Areau, locked in here for the last month, eating the slop he saw prepared in the kitchen, and wanted to cry. Unfortunately the kitchen wasn’t the worst part.

Rats, cockroaches—yes, and the cockroaches were bigger than niskets, that was the truth—but as they walked the bare concrete floors in rooms with painted steel walls, those weren’t the worst of the asylum, not by a long shot.

The worst part was the inmates—women laughing hysterically, banging on the bars of square metal cages, or men whimpering in corners, systematically plucking the hairs from their heads one by one. There was screaming and sobbing and the stink of urine left to corrode through the floor of a cast-iron platform, and walls painted and scrubbed a blinding antiseptic white, with no other color anywhere except the blood the inmates had shed to decorate on their own.

Oh Areau—how could you exist in this terrible place!

They found Areau in the infirmary, strapped down to the table with cast-iron restraints and chains. He thrashed about and moaned when they first walked in. Dorjan ripped off his cloth helmet and bent down before his friend, lowered his face to Areau’s, and stroked back his wild, sweat-stained yellow hair.

“You’ll be fine,” he murmured, but he had to work hard not to howl. Oh, Areau… what had they done…

Or not done, as the case was. Areau had been burned in the battle, but his wounds—oh, Bimuit! A week with the niskets at Kyon’s Gate and they would have had him cleaned up with minimal scarring, but here…

They were festering, blistering, with the lack of care.

“What in core’s depth have you been doing!” he snarled at the physician, who was currently applying balm to the oozing chafes on Areau’s wrists. Areau’s grimace was twisting, almost orgasmic, at the pressure to the bloody sores. “How can you call yourself a healer if he looks like this!”

“It wasn’t my fault!” The physician was a slight older man, with a fringe of white hair and a small, bitter face. “I came in and tended to his wounds, and the next day, all my work was undone and the… the filth they’d rub into them….” He shuddered, and Dorjan glared at him.

“Tend to them now,” he muttered and sank back down to Areau, putting his face close so Areau would see him through the pain.

“We’ll care for you, Ari. We’ll take care of you. We’ll fix this.”

“You came,” Areau breathed out. “You came for me. They told me you’d forget about me, that you didn’t care.”

Dorjan shuddered and pulled the neck of his white cocoon open to the navel so Areau could see, see the stitches from the operations where even the niskets wouldn’t have been able to heal him, see the still fading bruises and the paleness and the ruin.

“I could barely stand,” he whispered. “And we had to find you first. Oh, Ari, did you think I’d ever leave you behind?”

Areau’s good hand was free now, and he reached out and traced the scars, his touch tentative enough to tickle. Dorjan endured it without flinching. Areau had earned the right to touch him with impunity.

“I… I need to hold on to something,” he muttered, and Dorjan gave him his hand.

“Hold on to me.”

His father and the physician had the restraints uncoupled by then, and they threw a clean gauze robe over his skinny, ravaged body and a gauze helmet over his once-bright hair. Dorjan supported one side of him and his father the other, and together they walked back out the doors of the asylum. They had just cleared the kitchen when someone noticed.

“What’s with him?”

“Stomach ailment,” Kyon supplied. “Caught from one of the patients—very contagious!”

Dorjan shook Areau gently. “Barf, Ari?”

Areau startled but, after seeing Dorjan wink over his mask, started making horrible retching noises, and whoever it was backed off.

It was a good moment, and it cheered them, all four, as they made their way to the rabbit Kyon had secreted in a nearby stable. They rounded the corner toward comparative safety, and there was a sudden motion, a man in black coming near them and flitting away, and just that suddenly, Dorjan’s father went down in a blur of white and scarlet.

Dorjan grunted as all of Areau’s weight sagged into his arms, and he shoved his friend at the physician. Areau barely stirred from his trance, staring and whimpering as he looked at Kyon’s heavy body on the ground. Dorjan fell to his knees and saw that—oh, core’s depth—his father’s throat lay slashed open, the blood pooling, and his father’s eyes closing just that quickly. Only that? Only a knife flashing in the fading sunlight? Was that all it took to end a man’s life?

“Bimuit!” Dorjan turned toward the physician. “Get him to the rabbit and wait there!” he ordered, and military or not, something of those years studying for command must have held, because Areau and the physician struggled on. Dorjan gently slipped his father’s silver pendant through the slowing pump of blood and over his head. The pendant was an unspoken part of the landowning in Kyon’s Gate, and he would need it later. Once it was in his pocket, he glanced quickly over his shoulder to make sure they were gone. His last look at them showed them walking through the stable toward his father’s rabbit.

Dorjan was hurtling down the street by then.

He shed his disguise as he ran, leaving it on the concrete and the rabbit rail as he leapt. The knife man had been quick, there was no denying it, but he’d hit Kyon’s jugular, and he’d spattered a lot of blood on himself. His first footsteps, his direction, were all written in Kyon’s blood, and once Dorjan started to run… well, before his injuries, he’d been practicing in steam armor and gravity simulations with the thought that he’d be fighting in Karanos.

Thenis—Biemansland as a whole—had none of the gravity difficulties brought about by overmining, and Dorjan had been nisket healed after he’d been allowed to leave the hospital. His sprint wasn’t at its fastest, but it was still faster than the man who’d killed his father.

The people of Thenis prided themselves on clean, orderly streets, with trees planted in holes in the concrete and the rails that kept the steam-powered centipedes and the rabbits in line, which managed to keep the streets uncluttered by rickeys or hexahorses or any of the usual urban detritus. Dorjan was lucky—he had a straight enough shot to gain sight of the man.

But he followed the man to a part of the city he didn’t recognize, and even as the buildings went from stone to unpainted wood, he was surprised. The change was so complete—from soaring skyscrapers to two-story storefronts, to ramshackle tenements, to pasteboard roofs between the walls of an alley.

And still Dorjan ran. His lungs burned, his heart screamed painfully in his chest, but as long as he could see—

His target turned right and ducked under the pasteboard roofs of the mock-up ghetto, and Dorjan leapt and ran atop those roofs, grateful that his usually bulky muscles had leaned this last month in recovery. He spotted the frames of the tenements under the pasteboard, and ran on those. He heard his target’s progress as he went, and he had a moment to wonder: how was it that they were in the stewing seams of the city, but directionwise it seemed as though they should have turned a full circle, right back to the glittering, clean heart of it?

The alleyway opened up, and Dorjan, by whatever instinct, rolled to use his momentum and sank to a crouch in the shadows of the alley as he listened to the chaos underneath his feet.

In front of him, at the end of the alley, was a courtyard. It was lovely. Trees soared up between pale buildings that sported moldings carved intricately with animals and other symbols of luck, all glistening with bronze frames and brilliant flames of windows in the fire of sunset.

In the center of the courtyard sat the Triari, Alum Septra, and a number of other landowners. Septra was talking and the others were sitting, gathered like herd animals, and even from his position, Dorjan could see it: Septra was the tiger in their pen, not the breeding bull at all. He didn’t want to lead them, he wanted to devour them, and it was too late for the sheep to lock Septra out, now that he’d started his first course.

The murderer emerged from what appeared to be the façade of a door, and although Dorjan couldn’t see it clearly from this side, he could imagine—a bright doorway in the building, one that seemed to lead to nowhere.

And it did. None of those sheep or gazelles or deer wanted to know that right next to their graceful courtyard, with the fountain of clean water, was a hell of poverty so singularly filthy that Dorjan could smell excrement from where he crouched.

The murderer emerged and Dorjan saw the back of his head—black hair past his shoulders, curling at the ends, and efficient black trousers and boots, coupled with a black tunic belted close to his waist with a black utility belt.

Dorjan never saw his face, but he saw the man bow to Septra, and then stand, and even from a distance, he could see Septra’s smug grin. Alum Septra, the man who would murder innocent children and destroy Dorjan’s life and loved ones, stood up.

“Kyon of Kyon’s Gate is dead. Shall we have another vote, then, about continuing the war?”

“What about his son?” said the youngest Triari. “Dorjan of Kyon’s Gate is not a man to be ignored!”

“He’s a child,” Septra dismissed. “And a disgraced one. And now his father is dead, and we have a country to run. Once again. Who here favors the war?”

As Dorjan watched, horrified, grief stricken, and helpless, the Triari who ruled all of Biemansland, who ministered justice and civilization to all its citizens, stood and bowed.

Author Bio:
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.



Love in Bloom: The Remingtons Kindle World Spin-offs Part 3

THE REMINGTONS join the LOVE IN BLOOM series by New York Times & USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Melissa Foster. This 5-book steamy contemporary romance series features alpha male heroes and sexy, empowered women. They're flawed, funny, passionate, and very relatable to readers who enjoy new adult romance, contemporary romance, and women's fiction.

18 incredible authors have written spinoff books based on characters from different books in the LOVE IN BLOOM series. These books are all featured through the Kindle World. Enjoy the first installment of these books.

ENJOY the third installment of these books by these incredible authors.

Faith in Love by C.M. Albert
Full of grief and jaded by love, corporate philanthropist Egan MacGuire is given two options by his boss: take a leave of absence or kiss his job goodbye. A road trip with a friend is just the distraction Egan needs to figure out how to get his life back on track.

Celeste St. Angelo left the bright lights and big city for the mountains of North Carolina to open the next phase of her flourishing Angel Therapy business, a healing and wellness center. With the grand opening looming she has no time for distractions, especially love.

When divine timing sparks an unexpected romance, will Egan and Celeste be able to leave their troubled pasts behind and find the courage to have a little faith in love?

Crazy Love by Calinda B
Skilled “tiger whisperer” Kennedy Swift is on a mission to get her life on track and escape the people who want to do her harm. Running into Dante Vega isn’t on the plan. When her gaze lands on Dante, the same obsession and longing she experienced in her senior year comes roaring back to life. She simply can’t afford to let him in. End of story.

An unexpected, surprise encounter at a tiger sanctuary in the Bronx leaves mega-superstar musician Dante Vega reeling. Is the woman being charged by the tiger, about to lose her life, the same woman he crushed hard on at his exclusive private Manhattan high school before she vanished?

Each of their lives has been marred by tragedy. Each carries secrets, too dark to reveal. Will their secrets tear them apart? Or will they find the courage to come clean, risking all to find love?

Cameo appearances from Dex Remington, Ellie Parker, Mitch Anziano and Regina Smith, from Game of Love.

Give in to Love by Natasha Brown
Any of Miles Sharp’s ex-girlfriends would agree that his top priority has always been installing wells in developing countries. After all, he has never met a woman who is more important than his job. So when an attractive and seemingly unprepared botanist is sent to Honduras to help him with a problem, he makes it clear that he works best alone.

Inspiration from her late father gives Kara Mason the courage to leave the safety of her home to chase her dreams. If she wants her non-profit program to succeed, she must rely on Miles’s translating help to convince the ranchers of El Punto the answer to their water issues is planting bamboo.

As their attraction grows, Miles wonders if she is a woman he could put first. But if Kara leaves before he can decide, they’ll have to go back to their solitary lives unless he takes a chance and gives in to love.

Tracks to Love by Abbie St. Claire
Willow Alders is looking for a new start and leaps at the opportunity to work for an elite marketing agency in New York City. With the pain of Dallas in her rear view mirror she clings to her new motto, “The past is a statement, the future is a question.”

Tate Conway treats women like his racing opponents, one and done, but lately, his conquests have left him looking for more, and seeking solace in the bottom of a beer bottle.

Her first assignment at the agency forces Willow to face her past with the handsome racing devil, Tate. When she accidentally spills her coffee on him, Willow burns a track straight to his heart, can he shift her attention his way or will this be the greatest loss of his life?

Cooking Up Love by Stacey Wallace
Fabiana Rivas doesn’t have time for love. She’s already got more on her plate than she can handle with the long hours she works as a cooking instructor, caring for her aging mother and autistic son, and dealing with her self-absorbed celebrity chef ex-husband. But when a handsome firefighter flirts with her in the grocery store and then shows up to her cooking class, eager to learn, Fabiana considers that there is always room for dessert.

James Howland is newly divorced and burned out on love. He’s not even sure if he wants to stay in New York City – a place he moved to for his ex-wife’s career, taking him away from his work as a forest firefighter in Oregon. But when he meets a lovely woman at the grocery store and sparks fly, James can’t help but want to stoke the fire.

Fabiana and James discover that together they can turn up the heat without getting burned.

Could This Be Love by Kathy Ivan
Injured during the last game of the season, Jesse Turner won't admit to anybody he's afraid his career is over. After surgery and months of grueling physical therapy, he's anticipating and dreading the opening of training camp. Football has been the one constant he could depend on, and the only thing keeping his mind off his ex-wife.

After earning her Master's degree in education, Emma Worthington relocated to Dallas to teach and leave behind painful memories. What were the odds that out of six and a half million people, she'd run into her ex-husband?

Wed too young, their marriage ended in an annulment before the ink had a chance to dry, and they haven't spoken to each other since. When they reconnect, a tenuous friendship grows, but their special magic won't be denied and their feelings begin to resurface. When the lies from the past that drove them apart are finally exposed, can they find forgiveness or is it too late for a second chance at love?

Faith in Love by C.M. Albert
Egan looked around, taking in the floor-to-ceiling book cases that lined two adjoining walls. “These are gorgeous. Are you a big reader?” Egan set his duffle bag onto the pull-out sofa which Celeste had already made up. As he lifted his messenger bag over his head, his shirt rode up and Celeste inhaled sharply when she caught a glimpse of his toned stomach, his abs flush and tight beneath the buckle of his jeans.

She quickly turned her face to avoid meeting his gaze. The raw surge of heat went straight to her belly this time, skipping her cheeks entirely. She hadn’t had a reaction like this to a man in a long, long time.

“Voracious,” she whispered.

Egan lifted a brow, amused. “Are we still talking about reading?”

Celeste cleared her throat. “I’d better let you get settled. I’ll see you up on the front porch in a few?”

Celeste didn’t wait for an answer. She hurried upstairs and made her way to the laundry room. Closing the door behind her, she stood there in the dark, her heart racing. She ran her hand up along her chest to her neck, trying to roll away the tension and desire that had seared inside of her during her exchange with Egan. This was not good at all.

“It’s just attraction,” she whispered to herself. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

But deep in the pit of her stomach, she felt an ache. More like a flutter. Something was awakening that she thought she’d long since tempered. Hope.

Crazy Love by Calinda B
“What’s the plan?” Dante’s drummer Gia asked.

“Tag wants us to take control of the stage at intermission. He won’t say a thing. He wants to see how long it is before recognition dawns.”

Keys guffawed. “About the time it takes for Heat here to blow his load while laying between two hotties…two seconds.”

“Fuck off,” Heat said. “They double teamed me.”

“Cool it, you two,” said Dante. “So, it’ll be a short set, but let’s make it count. We’ll start with Wet, ramp up with Hungry and end with Want.”

“Now, there’s an explosive set,” Gia said. “You must need to blow off some steam.”

“You could say that,” Dante said, thinking of Kennedy. The feel of her on top of him…it was far better than he could have imagined. Giving her control was do-able. Stopping himself from claiming her, taking her the way he wanted — now that was pure torture. And when she left the way she did? He shook his head. The entire encounter proved unsatisfactory in the long run, leading to him standing here in SoHo-Mios with his band mates, confused, angry and twitchy as hell.

Give in to Love by Natasha Brown

She placed her hand on the bull’s forehead and gave it a scratch before leaning down. A sudden twitch of its head caught Kara off balance. With her eyes on the horns, she teetered, and fell into the red sludge. Her chest, arms and legs landed with a splat in the mud. Although surprised, she couldn’t help but laugh.

Snickers joined hers, as Miles’s hands grabbed her and with some effort, lifted her upright. Clay-covered and stiff, she allowed herself to get spun around. His lips pulled into a broad grin as he tugged her close.

“Watch out, I’ll get you dirty,” she murmured.

“Too late. Are you okay?” he asked, ignoring her muddy hands touching his forearms and pulled away to look her over.

Kara’s eyes trailed up to his face and caught there. Instead of answering, she nodded her head in small movements. Every second that passed, she began to notice what it was like having arms wrapped around her and the rise and fall of a strong chest. She’d never felt like she belonged anywhere like she did in his arms.

Tracks to Love by Abbie St. Claire
“Willow, I’d like you to meet Dex Remington to your left and,” Marcus pointed to a guy wearing funky, steampunk style glasses sitting across from Dex, “Mitch Anziano, both from Thrive Entertainment.” 

I nodded. “My pleasure to meet all of you.” I extended my hand to Tate. When he took it with a soft, flirty grip, I wanted to jerk it clear and punch him. 

“I’ll just call you coffee girl.” He snickered.

“Well then, I suppose I could call you ass—”

“Willow, can you start the video please?” Marcus inserted before I could claim my own space in the world of sarcasm.

Tate’s cockiness was a challenge and normally, one I’d accept. After all, he was definitely attractive and there was something to be said about his broad shoulders and dark, unruly hair. But, racing was off limits to me. Way beyond addiction, it was a one-way flight straight into hell.

Cooking Up Love by Stacey Wallace
Fabiana felt herself swoon a bit at the thought of this man all sweaty and dirty, sitting on the curb, his gear spread out around him, wolfing down a meal that undoubtedly contained cream of mushroom soup and tater tots. She enjoyed watching people eat with gusto after a hard day’s work.

She took a chance and slipped one of her ancient cards from the little-used pocket on the front of her purse. After quickly inspecting it to make sure she hadn’t used it as scratch paper or written a phone number on it, Fabiana thrust it at the guy. “I run the cooking program over at Tableau. My Beginner’s class starts this Saturday if you’re interested.”

The man grinned from ear to ear and blushed, taking the card from her hand. He looked it over. “Fabiana? What a cool name. I’m James.” He stowed the card in his pants pocket and then offered his hand to her. “Thanks for saving me from further humiliation. I’ll be sure to check out your class. Lord knows I need it.”

Could This Be Love by Kathy Ivan
During the drive back from his parents' place, she'd slumped over, practically landing in his lap. He'd ended up pulling her against his side to keep her from sliding off the seat.

Yeah, right. You just wanted to feel her against you. Touch her.

"Emma, honey, wake up."

"Don't wanna. Sleepy now."

He sighed and stared down at the barely awake but enticingly beautiful blonde. There were two very good reasons he didn't want to grab her in his arms, race upstairs and toss her into his bed. A—because she'd be mortified when she woke up and found herself sprawled out in her ex-husband's bed. And B—he wasn't sure his knee would hold up under the added strain.

With a grimace, he propped her languorously limp body against the seat and slid out, going around to the passenger door.

"Emma, come on, baby. Let's get you to bed."

The sunglasses slid down until they perched on the end of her nose. She opened her eyes, sleepy and yet a brilliant green even in the muted light of the garage. So damned gorgeous.

"What? Bed? Umm hmm, bed sounds good."

Author Bios:
C.M. Albert
Author C.M. Albert enjoys living dangerously on the razor’s edge as both author and editor. She’s had the privilege of copy-editing under her Grammar Babe business for several international bestselling and award-winning authors. Her own writing infuses a healthy blend of humor and romance, and she’s a sucker for a good villain and everlasting love. In her spare time, Colleen and her husband Derek wrangle their two young kids and enjoy spending time outdoors. When not writing, editing, or kid wrangling, Colleen is also a Reiki practitioner, chocolate chip cookie aficionado, kindness ambassador, and seeker of naps.

Calinda B
Calinda B is a bestselling author who crafts erotic short stories and paranormal, sci-fi and contemporary romance novels. An avid adventurer and outdoor enthusiast with a quirky sense of humor, she's always finding ways to torture her characters, and to entertain her long time love, her two cats or her kids and friends. She lives in the breathtaking Pacific Northwest, a place that soothes her soul and gives her plenty of time to write, scuba dive, work, write, bike ride, write, kayak, write and write some more.

Natasha Brown
Natasha Brown’s active imagination has always been a distraction to her. When she was a child, the forest outside her home, and books read in the dark past bedtime taught her that exciting worlds are created with dreams and a voice. Once she started writing, she couldn’t break the habit. By day, Natasha’s an assistant teacher at an elementary school, and by night, she’s a book cover designer. Her weekends are spent writing and spending time with family, unless she’s not busy sleeping and dreaming up her next imaginary world.

Abbie St. Claire
With a creative personality, Abbie St. Claire has always had her nose in a book. Whether one for decorative painting, gourmet cooking or steamy romance.

"Heck, those books all go together in my mind. My imagination can easily picture a painting session that turns steamy and I certainly see trying to prepare a gourmet meal while getting deliciously sidetracked with a partner and finishing that meal for breakfast," St. Claire says with a raised brow and twinkle in her eyes.

An International Best Selling Author, St. Claire focuses her work on writing steamy romance from the "writing nook" in her Houston, Texas kitchen, where she's currently at work on the "5th Avenue Romance Series.

St. Claire has quite a bit in store for 2016 with finishing the 5th Avenue Romance Series, starting a new series, participation in First Glance and The Diamond Club anthologies, and a Kindle Worlds project with Melissa Foster.

Stacey Wallace
Stacey Wallace is a full-time author and mama, and a part-time lunch lady. She writes engaging romances that make her readers snort-laugh, ugly cry, and fall in love with her characters.

Stacey lives in Beaverton, OR, a suburb of Portland, which suits her just fine as she can always find parking.

Kathy Ivan
USA TODAY Bestselling author Kathy Ivan spent most of her life with her nose between the pages of a book. From best-selling authors to just-getting-started writers, as long as it was a good story, she devoured it and happily searched for the next romance novel. It didn't matter if the book was a paranormal romance, romantic suspense, or action and adventure thrillers, sweet & spicy or sexy novella. As long as there was an alpha hero and a feisty heroine who got their happily ever after, she'd gladly spend her time with a psychic in New Orleans, or a mysterious stranger manipulating the fate of lovers. Kathy turned her obsession with reading into the next logical step, writing. Her books transport you from a paranormal lodge in the Colorado Mountains to the sultry splendor of the French Quarter in New Orleans in her award winning romantic suspense and mysteries. Kathy tells stories people can’t get enough of; reuniting old loves, betrayal of trust, finding kidnapped children, psychics and even a ghost or two. But one thing they all have in common - love (and some pretty steamy sex scenes too).

C.M. Albert

Calinda B

Natasha Brown

Abbie St. Claire

Stacey Wallace

Kathy Ivan

Melissa Foster

Faith in Love by C.M. Albert

Crazy Love by Calinda B

Give in to Love by Natasha Brown

Tracks to Love by Abbie St. Claire

Cooking Up Love by Stacey Wallace

Could This Be Love by Kathy Ivan

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