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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Murder in the Forbidden City (Qing Dynasty Mysteries #1) by Amanda Roberts

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Peking, 1867

When one of the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting is killed in the Forbidden City, she orders Inspector Gong to find the killer. Unfortunately, as a man, he is forbidden from entering the Inner Court. How is he supposed to solve a murder when he cannot visit the scene of the crime or talk to the women in the victim’s life? He won’t be able to solve this crime alone.

The widowed Lady Li is devastated when she finds out about the murder of her sister-in-law, who was serving as the Empress’s lady-in-waiting. She is determined to discover who killed her, even if it means assisting the rude and obnoxious Inspector Gong and going undercover in the Forbidden City.

Together, will Lady Li and Inspector Gong be able to find the murderer before he – or she – strikes again?

Readers who enjoy historical mysteries by authors such as Victoria Thompson, Deanna Raybourn, and Anne Perry are sure to love this exciting start to a new series by Amanda Roberts.

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EXCERPT

The empress, high up on her dais, wept uncontrollably. The baubles dangling from her elaborate hairdo quivered as she hid her face in her trembling hands.

The dead girl, one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting, was lying on a long table in front of Inspector Gong. The investigation has already been botched beyond solving. The girl had been moved from the scene of the crime. Who knew how many people had trampled through the scene itself. The eunuchs had probably worked quickly to clean up the mess. The other men present, the ministers and advisors, had no words to comfort the empress. Everyone of importance was there except for the emperor himself. Such horrors were not appropriate for a child.

“Who did this?” the empress shrieked. “I demand to know!”

The room stayed silent as she resumed her crying. The empress, young as she was, was a formidable force, yet the Inspector knew the killer would not make himself, or herself, known just because the empress demanded it. This was one situation where the empress was not going to get her way.

“Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong finally said, “may I have a closer look at the body?”

The empress nodded her consent. “Just don’t touch her!” she yelled.

“Of course,” the Inspector replied, even though her demand was ridiculous. How could he get a complete understanding of what happened if he couldn’t examine the body fully? He approached the girl and kneeled down next to her. She had been stabbed several times in her neck and chest, her qaopao ripped open where the knife slashed through the beautiful fabric. Dark splotches of blood stained the light blue satin. The blood was dark, almost black. Even though blood typically darkened over time, it seemed unnaturally dark. Her hands were bloody as well and showed evidence of a struggle. Someone else’s blood, perhaps. Her hair was a mess and her shoes were gone. She had fought back and most likely tried to flee from her attacker. Her jaw was tightly clenched and her eyes closed. Her death had been frightening and painful.

“What was her name?” the inspector asked in a loud clear voice so all could hear. He stood straight and crossed his arms as he looked around the room.

“Lady Yun,” one of the eunuchs replied.

“How old was she?” he asked.

“Fifteen, sir.”

The inspector grunted. Fifteen. And she was beautiful, even in death. The long eyelashes of her closed eyes lay upon her pale cheeks.

“Who were her family?” he asked.

“She had no male relatives,” the eunuch replied.

“She was an orphan?” the Inspector asked.

“No, sir. She has a mother, but she is sickly. She was primarily cared for by her brother and sister-in-law until her brother’s death. Her sister-in-law is her guardian, but the girl had been living here at the Forbidden City for the last year.”

“I’ll need to speak to her sister-in-law,” he said. “Has she been informed yet of the girl’s death?”

“No, sir.”

“Good, I want to be the one to tell her. I need to see her reaction.”

“Whatever you need,” the empress finally spoke up, “it shall be yours. You must find who did this.”

“I need to see where she was killed, and speak to all the other ladies of the inner court who knew her.”

The room gasped and the empress starred at him in shock. The men began to murmur and argue among themselves.

“That is not possible,” one of the men said loudly, pointing a finger at the inspector. “No man can be allowed in the inner court. It is for the women’s protection.”

“Protection?” the inspector asked. “One of the empress’s own ladies was murdered inside the very walls of the Forbidden City. Make no mistake; if someone could kill this girl, no one here is safe. Look at her hands, the stab wounds. She must have screamed. How could no one have heard her? I must be allowed to inspect every aspect of this crime if any member of the royal family wishes to feel safe in their own home again.”

The inspector knew he was making things worse. There was no evidence that the killer would strike again or that the empress or child-emperor were in danger, but unless he was allowed behind the sealed doors of the inner court, he would never find the killer. If he had to frighten the empress out of her wits to achieve his goal, he would do so.

The room erupted in yelling and arguments. The empress was no longer crying, but was looking around the room with her large, dark eyes.

“Inspector,” she finally said, silencing the room. “Are you saying you think I could be in danger?”

“I do not know, Your Majesty,” he said. “But I can rule nothing out. I do not know if Lady Yun was the target of the killer’s rage or if she only got in the way. I do not know if the killer has fled or if he, or she, is within this very room.” Another round of gasps followed. “What I do know,” he continued, “is that this investigation should be the throne’s priority, and to do my job properly, to bring the killer to justice, I need to be allowed into the inner court of the women.”

The empress opened her mouth to speak, but she was interrupted by a court minister by the name of Song. “No!” he said firmly. “It is forbidden and improper. You cannot violate the sacred space of the women’s quarters. To do so would be as violating the women themselves.”

“Minister,” Inspector Gong nearly laughed. “Investigating a murder would hardly be the same as taking a woman to bed…at least in my case.” Several of the other men laughed.

“This is no laughing matter,” Minister Song erupted. “If you cannot do your job from outside of the inner court, then you are not worthy of your title and should be stripped of your rank and salary immediately!”

“Now, see here, Minister…” the inspector began.

“I agree,” another minister interrupted. “Is his job worth doing if it violates the integrity of the empress?”

Several other men spoke up in agreement.

“Enough,” the empress finally said, her voice clear and even. The room went quiet. She was calm now. Even her hands were steady. “I agree this case should be of the utmost importance. My own safety and the safety of the emperor rely on it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong replied.

“However,” she continued, “we cannot allow this killer, whoever he is, disrupt our lives and the way things are done. Tradition and court procedure are at the very center of the throne and the country. I have to agree with the ministers. You cannot be allowed to enter the inner court, Inspector.”

“So you will allow a killer to go free?” he asked. “Allow a murderer to perhaps roam your very halls?”

“No,” she said. “You will find the killer. And you will do so quickly so that we can make sure my son is safe. You will have everything you need at your disposal, but you will do so from outside the inner court.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amanda Roberts is a writer and editor who has been living in China since 2010. Amanda has an MA in English from the University of Central Missouri. She has been published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies around the world and she regularly contributes to numerous blogs. Amanda can be found all over the Internet, but her home is TwoAmericansinChina.com.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Three Abductions and an Earl (Parvenues & Paramours #1) by Tessa Candle

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London-hating dreamer, Lydia Norwood, has failed spectacularly as a débutante. Now an encoretante whose family has lost a fortune, Lydia discovers that the beau monde is hard on a nouveau riche social climber, particularly one who is no longer riche and only wants to climb trees. Lydia must stave off effrontery and conniving competitors long enough to make a good match, or else incur society’s scorn by earning her own money. Falling for the unattainable Lord Aldley is a distraction she cannot afford. But they share such an enchanted history, how can her heart resist?

The tragically virtuous Earl of Aldley is tired of ambitious families hurling debutantes at his head, but cannot hide in France forever. He returns to London to seek out the mysterious tree-climbing girl who once saved him from a scheming chit, and finds more than he bargained for. Abductions, seductions, trickery and injury all endanger Lydia, but Lord Aldley’s heart is imperiled beyond rescue. He has only just found her; will he lose her forever to his enemy, his best friend, or his own dangerous mistake?

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EXCERPT

Lydia Norwood was not quite the thing with her freckles and red hair, and she knew it. But Lydia did not want to be a débutante. She wanted to be left in peace in the countryside.

Her mother’s eager anticipation of the season had propelled the Norwood family to London in early September while the weather was still warm, and in time to escape the stink of fall agricultural activities at Nesterling Lodge.

Yet Lydia quickly found that she preferred the smell of freshly applied manure to the stench of the ton’s superiority over the nouveau riche. She preferred her horse to high society, where the company, like the flow of weak tea, was as insipid as it was abundant.

It was getting harder to slip away somewhere quiet to read, but the day’s trip with her mother to a pleasure garden outside of the city gave her just such an opportunity. While her mother was engrossed in inspecting the many rare varieties of rose bush within the gardens, Lydia quietly sneaked off down one of the promenades into the woods.

She trailed her fingers over bark and leaves, inhaling the life-affirming sylvan fragrance as she ambled along, finally deciding upon the perfect tree to climb. It had a limb ideally angled for propping her back against the trunk, and from the upper branches she was mostly invisible to the promenade below.

The warm air brought the scent of some flowering bush—she knew not what kind, for she simply could not attend to such irrelevancies, but it was pleasant. She settled into a contented slouch and found her page in The Necromancy of Abruggio. Then voices interrupted her solitude.

“Listen, we have not much time, Mrs. Havens. He should be coming along this way any minute. Here are two guineas. You may keep them if you agree to assist me.”

“What shall I do, Miss Worth?”

“When we meet him and turn back to walk with him, you will lose the heel to your boot right about here. Bang at it with this rock, that should loosen it. Then I shall send you back to the hall by the fastest path. He might offer to accompany you, but you must refuse all assistance, and be very persuasive.”

“Of course, Miss Worth. I understand completely.”

Lydia could not help spying on this exchange, and watched Mrs. Havens tuck the coins into the handle of her parasol. She thought it was an incredibly foolish scheme. And what was the point of having a duenna or companion or whatever she was, if she could so easily be bribed to abandon her post. How did this lend countenance to anyone?

The two schemers passed out of her hearing. She dismissed it as more of the stupidity inherent in society, and returned to her novel.

To her irritation, her repose was shortly interrupted again.

“These gardens are heavenly, are they not?” Miss Worth had returned.

“I should say that they fall rather into the realm of earthly delights. That is their design, it would seem.” It was a man’s voice, deep and strong and smooth, and, Lydia thought, quite bored.

Anyone with such a voice would have a distinct advantage in the world, an ability to influence the listener with the pure beauty of the sound. Indeed, she found herself a little spellbound by it. Who was he?

“Oh, quite right. How clever!” Miss Worth simpered. “According to the on-dits, the master has actually constructed these ruins and temples that you see scattered around the grounds to lend romance to the landscapes. But they look for all the world like they are authentic. Delightful, is it not?”

Lydia winced. This was just the sort of inane prattle that she was trying to escape, and now she was a captive audience, for she could hardly shuffle out of the tree, excuse herself and scurry away. Could she? No, no. Of course not.

“I suppose the romance is diminished somewhat by the knowledge that they are recent artifices rather than ancient artefacts.” The beautiful voice vibrated through Lydia. It was terribly distracting.

“Oh, how you have a way with words, my lord!”

The party was coming into view, and Lydia peeked through the branches of her perch to spy upon them. Mrs. Havens dawdled behind and appeared to be fidgeting with her boot. She was sensibly dressed, with mousy hair, and when she stood up she revealed a remarkably plain face. An ideal companion for the other lady, then.

Miss Worth wore a pink day dress, rabidly frothing with lace, and held a matching parasol, which was unnecessary in the shade of the trees.
The young lady was decidedly pretty—that is, her prettiness was the product of decision. She had some natural appeal, with blue eyes, blond curls, and a slightly up-turned nose, but her hair, dress, bearing, and way of lowering her lashes demurely all fixed her as pretty in a premeditated sort of way.

Lydia wondered if it were having the desired effect on the gentleman, or whether the romance were diminished somewhat by the knowledge of the artifice.

“Miss Worth, my lord, forgive me. I am afraid that I must turn back.” Mrs. Havens interrupted the tête-à-tête.

“Whatever is the matter, Mrs. Havens?” Miss Worth’s mouth formed a dainty rosebud O of concern.

“My boot heel has come free. I shall turn back. Perhaps there is a servant at the hall who might fix it. If so, I shall catch up with you later.”

Lydia wished she could see the face of the lord, but as he was a great deal taller than the ladies, any view of his head was entirely blocked. She could not make out anything aside from well-tailored clothes and broad, nicely shaped shoulders.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tessa Candle is a lawyer, world traveler, and author of rollicking historical regency romance. She also lays claim to the questionable distinction of being happily married to the descendant of a royal bastard.

When she is not slaving over the production and release of another novel, or conducting research by reading salacious historical romances with heroines who refuse to be victims, she divides her time between gardening, video editing, traveling, and meeting the outrageous demands of her two highly entitled Samoyed dogs. As they are cute and inclined to think too well of themselves, Tessa surmises that they were probably dukes in a prior incarnation.

Those wishing to remain apprised of the status on her patent for the Rogue-o-matic Self-ripping Bodice should subscribe to Tessa Candle Updates on her website.

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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: A Secret Engagement (House of Caruthers Book 2) by Sarah Richmond

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Edmund Caruthers, London barrister and gentleman, defies his father and his class to represent the poor. With few paying customers, he struggles financially. He’s frustrated his betrothed won’t set a date to marry him.

Dolly Wycliffe dreams of becoming a famous milliner. She loves Edmund, but the life of a society matron isn’t for her. Edmund’s family and friends remind her that a girl who makes hats can’t become the wife of a distinguished barrister.

When a woman is found murdered in fashionable Mayfair, their two worlds collide. The victim is a shop girl and Dolly enlists Edmund’s help to find the killer. Edmund keeps a friend’s involvement a secret and Dolly realizes the toffs have rules they’re unwilling to break.

Is their love enough to overcome the obstacles ahead? Will marrying be a decision they’ll both come to regret?

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EXCERPT

Standing this close to Edmund Caruthers, her heart fluttering, the rest of her body reacting with scandalous desire, she didn’t want to be respectable.

Or, for that matter, a lady.

He poured a ladle filled with lemonade into two pretty cut-glass cups and handed her one.

Although Edmund rarely took anything seriously, she could tell by the set of his jaw and his piercing stare he was serious now. Beyond serious, for the subject of setting a wedding date had become a sore point between them. They had been engaged for more than six months, in secret, but it seemed like only yesterday when he’d proposed marriage. What a wonderful day that’d been.

“Are you all right?” Edward’s gaze made her flood with heat.

She smiled. “Why do you ask?”

“You are quiet this evening,” he said.

“Am I?”

She knew precisely what he was after. She kept his ring on a ribbon tied around her neck. Her hand went reflexively to the top of her corset where the ring rested, ready to take its place on her finger. When that would be, if ever, she couldn’t say.

Dolly couldn’t live in his world. She would always fear, as she did now, of being caught out. She could suffer the humiliation for her own sake, but she wouldn’t subject Edmund to their scorn.

“You haven’t answered my question,” he said.

“More like an observation.”

He sipped his punch. “Alas, I stand corrected.”

She looked into his eyes. She did not doubt his love for her. Did he appreciate the difficulty of the obstacles ahead? What if they were insurmountable?

“You have been very patient,” she said. “More patient than I deserve.”

His gaze clouded. “Tell me why you won’t set a date for our wedding.”

She sighed. “You know perfectly well I must work for a living.”

“I thought the discussion about your career was settled. I will not expect you to give up the milliner’s shop or stop making your exquisite hats.”

“You may not, but others will.”

He looked away and tightened his jaw. What she’d said vexed him.

She continued. “Society frowns on women working. As a wife, I will be expected to stay home.”

“You place too much importance on what others think,” he said.

“Of course I do. It is a necessity of being in trade. I make hats. What my customers like is crucial to whether I sell them or not.”

Edmund shifted his feet. He could not refute the truth of what she’d said.

Dolly wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by engaging in an argument. “This is not the time and place to discuss such an important matter.” She put down her drink on a side table. “We should instead be celebrating Herbert and Cecilia’s good fortune.”

“There never does seem to be a good time,” he answered with irritation.

She didn’t know what more she could say to convince him. She didn’t belong here. Surely he knew that. Why did he persist thinking society would accept her after they were married? Was it some kind of game to him, a challenge to family and friends?

She took his drink from him and set it next to hers on the table. “Sir, would you like to dance?”

His sullen expression disappeared. Happily, Edmund never stayed cross for long. He took her hand and led her to the middle of the dancers.

Drawing her closer, he put his hand at her waist. Not an embrace exactly, but thrilling just the same.

“I consider myself a lucky man.”

She rested her arm on his shoulder. The scent of his shaving cream reminded her of a walk in the park. She looked up into his eyes and saw a hint of amusement in the glint in his eyes and the quirk of his mouth, as if the matter of setting a date was settled. It was easy for him to believe all would be well because he’d never known failure.

He guided her to the rhythm of the music: one, two, three, and her heart beat the same rhythm. She put her troubles out of her mind and enjoyed herself in the arms of a splendid fellow.

Edmund would be the first to admit the evening had gotten off to a bad start. He blamed himself. The Pemberton’s soiree contained people Dolly didn’t know, apart from Herbert and Cecilia. They’d landed in a sea of social sharks ready to bite at the least provocation and Dolly had every reason to be apprehensive.

The music ended with a flourish and the assembly clapped. He twirled his true love one last time.

She threw back her head and laughed.

Ah, that’s better.

She detached herself from his grasp. The heat of the room and the exertion, and dare he think, his close proximity had brought color to her face, especially to the apples of both cheeks. He found himself transfixed by her glowing skin, dark penetrating gaze, and perfect mouth.
He thought himself the happiest man alive. The only thing that could make him happier is for her to set a wedding date. Her lips parted, ready to speak. Had she made a decision?

Herbert approached them bearing drinks. “Here you are.” He handed one of the glasses to Dolly. Edmund took the other.

His friend’s timing couldn’t have been worse but there’d be other moments this evening. The Pemberton’s ballroom was alive with romance and Edmund would take advantage. He felt certain he would have his answer tonight.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Richmond is an award winning Historical Romance writer. Born in the mid-west, she now resides in Southern California with her husband and Welsh corgi. Sarah is an avid fan of the University of Michigan football, movies from the 1940’s and 50’s, and enjoys having lunch with her friends

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Cutlass by T.M. Franklin

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Sarina Talbot is certain notorious pirate, One-Eyed Jack Tremayne, murdered her father and stole his prized cutlass. Out for revenge, she sneaks onto his ship disguised as a cabin boy, but Tremayne quickly catches on to her scheme. He claims she has the wrong man, and that, if they work together, he can help her gain the vengeance she seeks.

She doesn’t really trust him, and he doesn’t trust anyone. But they need each other to find the killer, and their uneasy alliance slowly turns to friendship, and then to more.

Add in an old journal full of cryptic clues leading to a hidden cache of Aztec gold, and Sarina and Tremayne have their hands full. Between sword fights, Crown ships, enemy pirates and a traitor on their own vessel, they’ll be lucky to escape with their lives, let alone the gold.

But perhaps, along the way, they’ll find a treasure even more valuable.

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EXCERPT

“Well, I think—” he began, but he never got to finish his thought, because Sarina reared back and slapped him across the face. Hard.

“You . . .” she sputtered. “You lecherous rake!”

“Rake?” Jonathan rubbed at his cheek. “You can hardly blame me for trying to protect you.”

“That wasn’t about protection!” she spat back. “That was you taking liberties!”

“As if you didn’t enjoy it.”

Sarina gasped and raised her arm to slap him again, but he was quicker this time, catching her wrist before she made contact.

“I believe once can be excused,” he said quietly, threat oozing with every syllable. “Female hysteria and all that . . .”

“Hysteria?” She scoffed, struggling to rip her wrist from his grip. “Hardly. More like well-founded outrage. To manhandle me like a common strumpet—”

At that, Jonathan tugged her closer, gritting his teeth in an unpleasant smile. “A common strumpet would know how to kiss,” he pointed out, purposely goading her.

“Well . . . I never!”

“Exactly my point.”

Sarina swung out with her other hand, but Jonathan caught that as well, his jaw tightening in frustration. “Would you please stop trying to hit me?”

“Would you please stop doing things that make me want to?”
Jonathan couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Miss Talbot, calm down, please,” he said. “If you’d allow me to explain.”

Sarina laughed humorlessly. “As if you could.” She frowned, but her movements stilled.

“If I release you, do you promise not to slap me again?” He eyed her carefully, only relaxing his grip after her curt nod. He stepped back, holding his hands out, just in case she changed her mind.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to slap you,” she said. “Goodness, for a pirate, you’re awfully skittish.”

“Well, you can hardly blame me,” he retorted. “You take every opportunity to brain me.”

She snorted. “As if you had one.”

“Tut tut, Miss Talbot,” he said, rounding his desk to sit in his chair. “Some might think you protest too much.”

“And what in the world is that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged, tapping a finger on his lips. “Just that there was a moment there when you didn’t seem to be protesting at all.”

“What?” Sarina gaped, her eyes darting around as she scrabbled for words.

“It was . . . my head. I was still dizzy from hitting Rafferty. And . . . you just . . . you took me by surprise. I didn’t expect you to be so . . . so . . .”

“Delicious?” he offered smugly.

She glared. “Forward.”

“I had to make it believable for the crew.”

“And why exactly would you need to use your tongue for that? It wasn’t as if they could see inside my mouth!”

Jonathan ignored the heat roaring up at the memory of her mouth . . . her tongue . . . the feel of her warm body pressed against his.

“They have seen me with other women before,” he replied, absently noting a twitch of her jaw at that comment.

Interesting.

“They would have noticed if I held back with you,” he added.
Her fight deflated. “Well, you could have warned me,” she said begrudgingly.
“It would have been nice to have been prepared.”

“Oh, come now, Miss Talbot,” he said, leaning back in his chair with a grin.
“Where would be the fun in that?”

“You’re a very irritating man, Captain.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Well,” Sarina said loftily, brushing at her skirts as she tried to collect herself. “To avoid such distasteful displays again, I think it best we adopt a few guidelines.”

Jonathan smirked. He had to admit he enjoyed battling wits with Sarina Talbot. The woman was infuriating, but definitely not boring.

“I don’t abide well with rules, Miss Talbot.”

“Undoubtedly,” she retorted, brushing back her hair. “Nevertheless, if we are to enact this charade, I am afraid I must insist on a few concessions on your part.”

“I abide even less with concessions.”

“Would you just listen to me?” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in frustration. “For heaven’s sake, you don’t even know what I’m asking!”

He eyed her for a moment, then nodded slightly. “Very well. What are your demands?”

Sarina inhaled deeply. “First of all, I sleep in the bed.”

Jonathan snorted. “Now who’s being forward?”

“Not with you, you arrogant prat!” she snapped. “I sleep in the bed. You sleep on the cot.”

Jonathan huffed out a laugh. “Not bloody likely!”

“You’d put your comfort before a lady’s?” she asked haughtily.

“Always.” He leaned forward with a leering smile. “That is, unless she’s in the bed with me.”

Sarina colored, but didn’t rise to bait. “Very well. It is your bed, after all. But I’m afraid I must insist on a mattress at least. There is no way I can sleep on those ropes.”

Jonathan fought a smile when he realized that Sarina never intended to take his bed, but was using it as a negotiating tactic. “All right,” he conceded. “There are some spare ticks in the hold. But you’ll haul it up yourself. No bothering my men with menial tasks.”

“Yes, well, I suppose menial tasks are my job now, right?” she muttered.

“Exactly.” Tremayne leaned his elbows on the desk, fingers tented before his lips. “Anything else?”

“No chamber pots. That is non-negotiable.”

Jonathan winced. He could hardly blame her. “Done.”

She lifted her chin. “And no sneaking peeks,” she said. “When I’m dressing . . . or bathing . . .” He cast a pointed look at her bodice and she hurried to the chest to retrieve another handkerchief.

“And absolutely no more kissing.”

Tremayne raised a brow. “No kissing? None at all?”

She tucked the handkerchief into her gown. “You’ve established our apparent relationship with your crew. They’re aware I’m staying in your quarters. I wouldn’t think it necessary.”

He rubbed a finger lightly over his lips, back and forth. “Not necessary, no,”
he said, voice low, considering. Sarina’s gaze drifted to his mouth, where he continued to trace a slow circuit across his lips. “But enjoyable.”

She started, eyes snapping up. “Hardly!”

He stood, rounding the desk to stand disturbingly close to her. Sarina took a step back, then forward again, refusing to be intimidated. He loomed over her, eye glittering in the lantern light.

“Are you certain it would be so distasteful, Miss Talbot?” he rasped quietly. “So certain you wouldn’t like it?”

“Of course I wouldn’t!” she insisted, voice catching. She cleared her throat nervously. “I would never . . .”

“Never?” he pressed, leaning even closer. “No reason to hold back, Miss Talbot. It’s not as if your reputation is in danger.”

Sarina sputtered, unable to form words.

“You’re already sharing quarters with a—how did you put it?—a lecherous rake,” he prodded, unable to resist. “Why not enjoy yourself?”

He could see her trembling, although whether her discomfort stemmed from his proximity or her own reaction to it, he wasn’t sure. She swayed toward him slightly, and his mouth curved in victory.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

T.M. Franklin writes stories of adventure, romance, and a little magic. A former TV news producer, she decided making stuff up was more fun than reporting the facts. Her first published novel, MORE, was born during National Novel Writing month, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. MORE was well-received, being selected as a finalist in the 2013 Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book Awards, as well as winning the Suspense/Thriller division of the Blogger Book Fair Reader’s Choice Awards. She’s since written four additional novels and several best-selling short stories…and there’s always more on the way.

Website: www.TMFranklin.com
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: For the Brave (The Gentrys of Paradise #1) by Holly Bush

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1869 – Matthew Gentry joined the Confederate Army at eighteen years of age after an argument with his father, leaving Paradise, his Virginia home and famed horse breeding stables, for the fields of Gettysburg. Having survived the War Between the States, Gentry is haunted by the violence and inhumanity of the war. He continues to roam the country long after the conflict is over, finding solace in the arms of soiled doves and at the bottom of whiskey bottles. Finally traveling home after learning of a family tragedy, he nearly loses his life in a spring-flooded riverbed.

Annie Campbell, lone survivor of her family, lives at a remote farm near the North River, raising pigs and trying to grow enough to feed herself, and to stay out of the crosshairs of the Thurmans, violent men who run the town of Bridgewater. Annie’s secrets threaten her safety, even as she rescues and nurses Matthew Gentry.

Matthew knows he must return to Paradise, to grieve with his family. Will his heart lead him back to Bridgewater and Annie Campbell?

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EXCERPT

The train slowed down to a crawl as it approached the Winchester station. Matt looked out the window as town came into view and found it looked achingly familiar, as if there was a painted sign hanging from the sky saying “this is your home.” But as they got closer, he could see that details had changed. His great-aunt Brigid’s seamstress shop was now called Bessie’s Sewing, but hadn’t she been talking about selling even before he’d left home? He knew she was old then, probably seventy years old by now, and he wondered if she’d died while he was gone. He could have asked Ben. He hadn’t asked him much of anything about home, just the barest bit of information. Oh, he was a coward.

Ben had woken and was pointing out the window with a shaking finger at every landmark and store they passed before the train finally stopped with a steamed belch. They waited until all the other passengers departed, letting Ben take his time walking down the narrow aisle to where a porter stood to help him down the steps. Matt followed close behind carrying his saddlebags and the oilcloth sack. He handed the porter a coin and held on to Ben’s arm. The old man was exhausted even though he protested and said he’d be fine. Matt looked up when he heard his name.

It was Adam, his elder brother, calling to him. Matt wasn’t sure until that moment how it would feel to see them, his family that was, and whether youthful bonds would trump adult errors. But Adam was walking to him now with the familiar loose gait of a tall, active man, smiling, a rare thing to be seen, and Matt was certain that wherever his travels had taken him, and whatever sights he’d seen, nothing could compare with the gladness he felt right at that moment.

“Adam?”

His brother grabbed him around the shoulders, slapping his back and laughing. He hugged him back hard, smelling the scent of horses and home that his brother carried. Adam stepped away and looked at him.

“My God, Matt. I’ve missed you. I am so glad you’re here.”

Matt turned when he heard Ben sniffling beside him.

Adam turned his head. “Ben? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Adam,” he said, crying and shaking and leaning on Matt. “I thought I’d never see you again, boy.”

Adam put his arm around the old man and looked over his head at Matt, questions in his eyes.

“We’re going to need a wagon, Adam, and my horse Chester is being unloaded right now, I can see. Will Wilkins’s have something we can use?”

“Sure, sure, Matt. Let me get over there and get something from Jasper. My horse can pull it and we’ll tie Chester to the rear.”

“Chester will be very glad to be on the tail end of a wagon, wouldn’t you say, Ben?” Matt asked.

Ben wiped his nose on his sleeve. “He sure will, son, he sure will,” he replied in a shaking voice.

“Let’s get you over to the stable while they’re unloading Chester,” Matt said and bent down to lift him.

“I don’t need carried,” Ben said but didn’t move to get out of his arms.

“Shut up, old man, or I’ll dunk you in another river,” he said.

Ben chuckled, and he went down the steps, his brother’s eyes on the pair of them the whole time. They got Ben settled in the back of a low wagon where Matt stowed his saddlebags and sack. He brought Chester down the steep incline near the steps, leading him by the bridle, and talking soft and low. He tied Chester to the back, promised a double ration of whatever the Morgans were getting and a clean stall that he could rest in for as long as he wanted.

He climbed up onto the seat beside his brother. “Did you just happen to be in town?”

Adam shook his head. “Mother’s been sending me every time the train is due to arrive from the south. I stand on the platform and wait until the last passenger is off. I didn’t one time and made the mistake of telling her so, and she nearly sent me back to town,” he said and looked at him. “She was worried I’d left you at the station. I almost left today, thinking everyone was off the train, and then I thought I recognized Ben and you behind him. Mother would’ve had my hide if I’d left early today.”

“I’ve worried her,” Matt said, eyes on the trail before him.

“You have. You’ve worried us all. But you’re here now, and I get the feeling that there’s some stories to tell.”

The wagon passed the outcrop of rocks marking the Paradise property line, revealing a valley below with a plateau of flat land above it. The valley was fenced, with horses grazing and trotting about, and he could see a few foals probably born this past spring trailing their mothers. He looked at the house above and felt a tight constriction in his chest. Flat whitewashed fences surrounded its rambling two stories that had been one room when his parents moved there shortly after their marriage. It was now a sprawling twenty-room house of stone with large windows and wood shutters and a gabled roof. Flowers were still blooming, and trees overhung the house in the back. A large barn sat near it with several other neat outbuildings beyond. It was Paradise. It was his home.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Holly Bush’s books are set during the turbulent and transformative years of the late 1800s. The first two books in her newest series, The Gentrys of Paradise, will release in the spring of 2017, beginning with Into the Evermore, where readers will meet Virginia horse breeders, Eleanor and Beauregard Gentry. The following books will feature their children, Adam, Matthew, and Olivia. For the Brave is Matthew’s story and is the first full length book of the series.

The Crawford Family Series following the fortunes of the three Boston born Crawford sisters and includes Train Station Bride, Contract to Wed, Her Safe Harbor, and companion novella, The Maid’s Quarters. Cross the Ocean and Charming the Duke are both British set Victorian romances. Fan favorites stand-alone historical romance novels include Romancing Olive and Reconstructing Jackson. Her books are described as “emotional, with heartfelt, sexy romance.”

Holly makes her home with her husband, one happy Labrador Retriever, and two difficult cats in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Connect with Holly at www.hollybushbooks.com, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: An Heiress in Disguise by Jennifer Wenn

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Hell will freeze over before Miss Philomena Aubrey willingly marries the insufferable Honorable Luther Whyte. Her mother had angled Mina’s quite hefty dowry in front of the vicar and secured him, but Mina still resisted. When Mrs. Aubrey threatens to force her into the marriage, Mina’s father hides his daughter with a friend of his as he leaves for an extended business trip.

A wounded war hero, burdened by guilt after inadvertently sending his French fiancée to death, Lord James Darling keeps his family as far away from his tormented heart as possible. But as he keeps bumping into his mother’s new lady’s maid, he grows suspicious—is she a spy?—and sets out to expose her, only to find himself mesmerized by her feistiness and her warm heart.

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EXCERPT

“Miss Ayle,” he greeted her coldly, and she made sure to curtsy as humbly as she could muster.

“My lord.”

“If you are searching for my brother, you will probably have to go back to where you came from. If I know him correctly, he is still in bed.”

She wanted to roll her eyes over his rudeness but managed to keep her eyeballs still as she recognized the jealousy oozing from him. So instead she shrugged lightly, hiding her excitement. “I wouldn’t know, my lord, I haven’t seen him since we parted in the gallery last night.”

He didn’t answer that, but as he dismounted she thought he looked a bit less rigid.

“Did my mother send you for me?”

She almost groaned. Why hadn’t she thought of that? It would have been a much better and much more valid excuse for seeking him out, rather than mumbling something airy about how she had happened to bump into him while visiting the horses. Had she been a bit better on planning ahead, thinking one step further, she could gladly have told him that his mother wanted to see him, because that would have meant walking with him through the castle.

But unfortunately she hadn’t thought so far. To be completely truthful, she hadn’t thought much about it at all, as she had been too excited to see him again after her nightly conclusions. So she simply made another curtsy and shook her head as solemnly as she could muster. “No, my lord.”

He didn’t say anything in response, only handed the horse’s reins to the stable boy and watched the beautiful animal disappear deeper into the large stable, while she grabbed the sudden opportunity to gawk at him.

He was the picture of a country gentleman, beyond splendid even if he was clad in a scruffy brown riding outfit which had seen better days a decade or two ago. But the rich brown color of the worn cloth made his blond hair shine and his light gray eyes glisten. He was such a handsome man! The more she took in his appearance, the more certain she became about him being the one for her.

Lord James Darling had none of what she considered the less attractive qualities the Honorable Luther Whyte possessed and rejoiced in showing off. Instead he was a wallflower by choice, always on the edge of whatever company wherein he found himself. His body was in one place, but his mind, his heart, and his soul were elsewhere. He had an air of loneliness, but instead of seeking the company of others he preferred to keep everyone at as many arms’ lengths as he could.

Especially when it came to his family.

Looking at him, she couldn’t help but think she had to save him. She had to bring him back to life. Back to his family. Something dark bothered him—it was obvious to anyone who took a good look at him, and she had to admit she was desperate to find out what it could be.

Jamie was a mystery, and for better or for worse, she couldn’t walk away from the riddle he presented.

When he noticed her staring at him, he frowned, unimpressed. “Was there something else, Miss Ayle?”

“No. my lord.”

“Are you curtsying to me?”

He seemed aghast, as if something with her bobbing her knees bothered him. Of course she had to do it again, to tease him, and received yet another frown.

“We both know you are anything but a maid, so please stop the knee bending.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And stop calling me that.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I said stop it.”

She kept quiet for a second more before lowering her gaze so he couldn’t see the twinkle in her eyes. “Of course, my lord.”

He surprised her by being quite resourceful, grabbing her chin with his strong fingers and forcing her to look him in the eye. “I said stop it.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I mean it.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Stop it before I do something we both will regret,” he said, lowering his head until their noses almost met.

Feeling his breath against her lips stirred something inside her, and she couldn’t hold back a shiver of delight. Mesmerized, she stared into his eyes, watching them as they turned warmer, burning into her.

“Whatever you say, my lord.”

His gaze turned darker, hotter, and before she could think one straight thought he lowered his head until their lips almost touched. “What would you say if I do the unthinkable and kiss you?”

“Thank you?”

He stared at her for a second, as if in shock over her honest and direct approach. His normal coldness disappeared as he reluctantly smiled down at her. Slowly, he lifted his other hand and put it around her neck, stroking the sensitive skin of her neck with his thumb.

“Remember that you asked for it,” he whispered.

“I did.” Her voice was only a whisper away from audible, but he still caught the meaning of what she’d said to him, and before either of them had a chance to stop this insanity, he lowered his head until his lips pressed against hers determinedly.

The groan which slipped out from him as their lips met made her knees weak, and a moan ripped itself out from her chest in response to his pleasure and the divine feeling of his full lips against hers. He planted small, delicious kisses on both her lips before returning to her upper lip and the corner of her mouth, as if he couldn’t decide which part of her mouth he liked best. Tenderly, he nibbled on her lower lip, sending waves of pleasure through her. Just as she thought this couldn’t get any better, his tongue forced its way into her mouth, and she died a thousand divine deaths.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

So who am I? Well, to do it the short way… I’m a devoted mother of four children (beloved little monsters), married to my very own hero and best friend (deeply in love for more than twenty years), owner of one cat (whom I didn’t get to name Elvis) who rules our home without mercy. Completely addicted to coffee (who isn’t?). I live in western Sweden, in a house that is constantly growing and therefore is never finished. Did I mention my husband is a builder…

I’m totally addicted to TV shows such as Elementary, The Blacklist, Person of Interest, Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS and Castle to mention a few. I’m still in mourning as a few of my all time favourites was cancelled this spring. Rest in Peace CSI and The Mentalist.

I’m currently writing on a fifth novel in The Royal Family series in which Lord Sebastian Darling will meet his match.

Find out more about Jennifer and her books at The Wild Rose Press and https://jenniferwenn.wordpress.com/.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Love and Mayhem by Luanna Stewart

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Sybil is happily on the shelf, tending to her sheep. But she fears she’ll depart this life without experiencing physical love, which she suspects is rather enjoyable. When her long-lost fiancé returns from sea, she decides he’s the lucky man who’ll receive her virginity.

Max is eager to return to his sugar plantation and has no intention of remaining in London. However, he didn’t bargain on a wilful, pretty, exasperating spinster determined to take him to her bed.

He insists on marriage, but she wants only his body. Her heart is not part of the deal. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always follow the rules.

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EXCERPT

Kissing Max was delicious, and she was eager to continue. When they returned home, she’d invite him into the study. Or they could go to his house. Did she dare?

Their inconvenient audience had not taken itself off as evidenced by the approaching swish of skirts.

She pushed against his chest again, harder. “Please, this has gone far enough.”

“I would argue, but apparently this is neither the time nor the place.” He placed one last kiss on her forehead before stepping back, though he kept one arm around her waist, preventing her escape. “Is there something you needed to say, madam?” He spoke to the interlopers, for there were indeed two matrons approaching, in a frosty tone.

Sybil would be hesitant to intrude further if faced with his scowl. And she knew him. At least, she thought she did. But during the last few days she’d discovered more than a handsome face, an admirable physique, and a charming smile. Here was a man who listened to her ideas and considered her opinions. A man who made her feel safe and comfortable. A man who could fill her days and weeks with delicious kisses.

The two women who had stumbled upon their tryst got rather red in the face and pursed their lips. The taller of the two took a step closer. “Who are you, sir? And what do you mean by manhandling this poor child?” She fairly bristled with indignation and outrage.

He sketched a brief bow. “Maxwell Bretherton at your service. Allow me to present my affianced bride, Miss Sybil Woodbridge.”

“I’m not marrying you.” She finally broke free of his hold and attempted to straighten her hat. He’d surely become addled from all his years under the tropical sun. Not only had he not properly proposed marriage, but she’d not said yes. Nor would she. She didn’t want a husband. And certainly not one who would think nothing of ordering her about. Even if it was Max. With his kisses.

“We’ll discuss this later.” Max’s breath tickled her ear, his voice a low growl. “I don’t want these fine ladies to fall under a misapprehension.”

“I think they interpreted the situation quite accurately.” With her hat firmly in place she faced the women, determined to brazen this out. What a lot of fuss and bother over an unimportant embrace. She smoothed her gloves. Yes, unimportant. Well, to anyone else but her, certainly. But it didn’t mean anything. Mutual attraction. And if she wanted to explore that attraction further, it was no one’s concern but hers. And Max’s, of course. She glanced at him quickly, fearing she’d ventured beyond mutual attraction.

“Shall we summon a constable, miss?” The short, plump woman clearly wanted to leave the awkward scene, but didn’t want to abandon Sybil to potential ravishment.

“No, you needn’t summon help.” Max appeared to be talking through clenched teeth. He put his arm around her again, scandalously higher than her waist. In fact, his thumb touched her breast. The heat of his hand seeped through his glove and her gown, chemise and corset. Her nipples tightened. Her private parts tingled as she imagined his bare hand touching her bare skin, smoothing over all areas seldom exposed.

The tall, horsey looking woman grabbed Sybil by the elbow and pulled her from Max’s embrace, propelling her along the path. “We will escort you home, young lady. There has been more than enough of this foolishness.”

Max grasped Sybil’s other arm and pulled her to a stop. She stood suspended between the two like a marionette. “I told you, madam, we are to be wed. There is nothing improper about us spending time alone together.” Max attempted to pry the woman’s fingers from Sybil’s arm.

“Max, stop it.” Sybil swatted at his hand. “You are causing a scene. Ma’am, I am quite safe with this gentleman. He is a friend of my brother. He is returning me to my home right this minute.”

“The hell I am. We aren’t finished here yet.”

“We are quite finished. We were finished nine years ago when you disappeared at sea.”

The plump woman gasped. “It is you, the one they were talking about in Teacher’s Tea Room. Hester, he’s known to Lady Arabella. He’s the man who became a pirate rather than marry some grasping chit.”

Sybil spun on the interfering busybody. “I was not some grasping chit. He made a promise and broke it. Not so much as a letter did I receive.”

The tall woman finally released Sybil’s arm. “I am acquainted with Lady Arabella.” She looked down her long nose, a gleam in her eye. “And now you mean to trap this man into marriage. Is that the plan, girl?”

“I mean no such thing. I have no intention of marrying this—him.” Just her luck to run into one of the few people in London acquainted with her family. The woman’s nose twitched, no doubt excited to be near the center of a scandal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Luanna Stewart has been creating adventures for her imaginary friends since childhood. As soon as she discovered, and devoured, her grandmother’s stash of medical romance novels, all plots had to lead to a happily-ever-after.

Luanna writes full time, concentrating on sexy romantic suspense, steamy paranormal romance, and spicy historical romance.

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Luanna now lives in Maine with her dear husband, two college boys, two cats, and one surviving gold fish. When she’s not torturing her heroes and heroines, she can be found in her kitchen whipping up something chocolate.

Visit Luanna on her website: http://www.luannastewart.com/

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Hidden Duchess by Bree Verity

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Celeste, Duchesse de Saint Tours, is forced into hiding when she is falsely accused of the murder of her husband. She flees to the south of France, where her distant cousin, Marcel Daunou reluctantly agrees to hide her in plain sight on his farm. However, she must learn to live as a peasant farmer to complete the deception, a feat which appears next to impossible to the haughty Duchess. Especially knowing that the unsettling Marcel is watching over her at every turn. She can’t wait to return to her beloved Paris, and the exquisite, hedonistic lifestyle she has left behind.

Marcel knows that he places his loved ones in danger when he agrees to hide Celeste. However, his committee has agreed to hide her in exchange for a large sum of money that will assist their gravely poor community, and since she is his family, he takes responsibility for her. But Republican fervor is running high and Marcel knows if the Duchess is found out, she will be marched back to Paris, and to the guillotine. And his family will face harsh retribution from the agitating revolutionaries for hiding a member of the despised nobility.

Forced to work together, Celeste and Marcel discover a passion that they cannot resist. And Celeste discovers a feeling of belonging and acceptance from the people of the village that she has never felt before. She begins to dream about a future with Marcel.

When her well-meaning lawyer appears in the village and gives her identity away, it isn’t only Marcel that Celeste stands to lose – it’s her life as well.

How can a noble Duchess and a peasant farmer find their happily ever after?

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EXCERPT

Celeste ducked her head to avoid the low door frame as she was ushered into the cellar. Standing up on the other side, she faced around a dozen sizeable men squeezed into a tiny room. And they were all staring at her.

Unable to catch more than snatches of their rumbling conversations, Celeste consoled herself with determining the mood of the room by what she could see in their candlelit faces. Out of the dozen men, she could make out only two who regarded her with any kindness.

One was an old man, Celeste thought he looked the oldest in the group. Perhaps age had rewarded him with understanding, because he seemed to be arguing her case to the stony-faced man beside him. Celeste graced him with a small, grateful smile and he winked back.

The other kind eyes belonged to her cousin.

The rest looked her over with various expressions—thoughtfulness, curiosity, embarrassment, even hostility. The words “murderess” and “duchess” reached her ears, and she inwardly cringed. The contempt in their voices seemed the same whether they were speaking of one or the other. Her stomach gurgled, thankfully it stayed quiet enough that the muttered conversations of the men covered the noise. They didn’t need to know she hadn’t been able to eat all day.

Certain that catching the eye of the hostile men would betray her trepidation, Celeste avoided their faces after a single glance. Appearing assured and self-contained in front of the peasants was paramount, even if her stomach was roiling and her heart pounding. She blinked rapidly, willing herself not to cry.

An unpleasant, dizzy feeling passed over her, and the conversation around her dulled as a greyness entered her vision. She almost lurched, feeling as if she had lost her balance for a moment. Thankfully, the dizziness passed as quickly as it had appeared.

“We’ve come to a decision, Madame.” Her cousin’s deep, serious voice boomed through the room, despite him speaking quietly. Monsieur Daunou reminded Celeste of a bear; enormous, black haired and barrel-chested, with onyx eyes that had glinted with suspicion when he first spoke to her earlier, but which seemed to have softened in the candlelight of the timbered cellar.

Celeste tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. Even running her tongue over her parched lips was impossible. All her actions of the past days—her horror at learning she was accused of murder, her hurried exit from Paris, and the agonizing tediousness of her journey to the tiny village of Danguin had led to this one moment.

Time seemed to stand still. The candle, guttering only a moment before, shone clear and bright. The smoke from the men’s pipes hung motionless in the air. She stood perfectly immobile, even the soft swish of her dark green worsted travelling dress against the stone floor stopped. For a long moment, the only thing Celeste was aware of was her heart, beating an unsteady tattoo. She held her breath, her eyes meeting Monsieur Daunou’s for a suspended moment that felt like forever. Then a half-smile crossed his face.

“We’ve decided you can stay. The price’ll be five hundred louis.”

She let out her breath, closing her eyes as she did so. Her entire body unclenched. From what seemed a long way away, she heard her own voice.

“Thank you, Messieurs. I appreciate your consideration.”

And with that, all the emotions of the past days crashed in on her—the fear, the distrust, the apprehension, along with the new feelings of giddy relief and happiness. She heard herself say in a strange, slurring tone, “I wonder if I could have something to eat, please?” before she felt herself falling, and the world went black.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bree Verity grew up on a diet of tea and crumpets, dancing, Regency novels, old movies and musicals. It’s no wonder she has ended up writing love stories. She lives in Perth Western Australia with her teenage son, her long-suffering, patient and wonderful partner, and her two writing buddies, Millie and Boofhead. She keeps it very quiet from them that she is equally a cat person. She is horribly charmed by the tiny house movement and, although she realizes she would very quickly go crazy in such a confined space, she will watch anything and everything about building tiny houses. If there was a way to directly infuse tea into the veins, she would sign up for it immediately.

Bree loves to hear from her readers and can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, or at her website: http://www.breeverity.com

VIRTUAL TOUR: Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

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England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.

Publisher and Release Date: Endeavour Press, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1650
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645, in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community but does not permit her to become involved.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country and then moves south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.


Excerpt

James made his way down Jury Street through the livestock market and pens of bleating lambs. Someone had forgotten to latch a crate properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted in before they were beaten away.

Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely he would find her here, amongst the stalls of linens, laces and ribbons. Hats and coifs intermingled, and for a moment all he could see was a blur of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.

Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.

He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought, and drew closer.

Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.

He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind, or to seek instruction?”

Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.

“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”

James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”

“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”

Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.

“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.

James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.

“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.

“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.

“How would you know this?”

“I know everyone here.”

“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”

James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected, Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”

Elizabeth’s head dipped.

“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”

“Indeed, your information is correct.”

“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.

“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”

“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”

“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.

“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”

A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.

“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wityou can do better.

She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”

“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.

“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.

“Naturally, by your speech.”

“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.

“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”

Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.

“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”

James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”

“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.

“Owl.”

“Owl?”

“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.

Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”

“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”

“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”

“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”

“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.

“Welcome home.”

With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.

“Unmistakable.” He grinned.

“The verdict?”

“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”

“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”

This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”

“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.

“What of our wager?” James called out to her.

Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”

James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.

“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.

“Nay, not yet,” he smiled, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.

 

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Traitor’s Knot

About the Author

Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast, with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). She blogs about English history and storytelling at her blog, the 17th Century Enthusiast, and is an editor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Cryssa’s debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, a romantic tale of adventure set during the English Civil War. Traitor’s Knot is the first in a series of adventures spanning from the ECW to the Restoration and is now available from Endeavour Press.

For more information visit Cryssa’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Mad for the Marquess (Reluctant Hearts, Volume 1) by Jess Russell

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James Drake, Marquess of Devlin, had everything—until he was found covered in blood, standing over a dead girl. Now locked away in a madhouse, he has one short year to recover his memories and prove his sanity, or be condemned for life. But the demons inside Devlin’s head are far easier to battle than the evil surrounding him at Ballencrieff Asylum.

Anne Winton hardly expects to find her calling—or love—while working in a lunatic asylum. But despite all warnings, the “Mad Marquess” proves dangerously fascinating to innocent Anne. She vows to save him not only from his adversaries, but from himself.

Initially, Anne is only a pawn in Devlin’s bid to gain his freedom, until he begins to see her not just as a means to an end, but as a beautifully passionate woman. He must choose: compromise the woman he loves, or languish forever in hell.

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EXCERPT

Very well, she would let her hair down. Really, men could be children at times. She pulled the first pin and slid it into her pocket. By the second, he had stopped dead and stood watching her as if something crucial might be lost if he moved. It finally dawned on her thick brain in the middle of removing the third that she had his entire attention. Of course that knowledge made her fumble the fourth. As she scrambled to pick it up, her hair fell in a rush, the ends brushing the rug.

“I have been aching to see that since I knocked your bonnet off in the great hall the first day you came.”

He was so close, nearly face to face with her. Taking the pin from her shaking fingers, his hands framed her face and then brushed over her head, searching for more pins. When he found them all, he released her hair. It fell heavy and swinging down her back and over her breasts.

Wishing to hide or to savor this moment, she closed her eyes. He smelled of linseed oil and cloves. And something else that was deep and earthy, as if he had just sprung from the ground.

His hand brushed her skirt. She blinked. He dipped into her pocket and then dropped the pins. The bone of his knuckle hovered next to her thigh. Only one thinnish petticoat between them.

She would slip her hand in with his and then lift her mouth—

He jerked the delicious heat away and then yanked her to her feet.

“Stop looking at me that way, for God’s sake. How am I to concentrate on anything?”

Stupid tears pricked at her eyes. So foolish, persisting in the belief that his smallest gesture might be one of seduction. Steeling herself she met his gaze.

His breath came fast, and the hand he had just withdrawn from her clenched white with tension. Not just in anger, but something else as well.

She would find out what the something was. Insolent and stubborn, Mrs. Abbot had called her. Her knees still bore the scars from being made to kneel on sharp stones from morning prayers until tea. Lord Devlin would find out his Owl, as he called her, could be tenacious as a hawk when she truly wanted something.

“Sit down. Quickly.”

She did so. But not quickly.

“Lie back in the chair. Yes… No! Don’t touch your hair. Now drape yourself over the chair’s arms. Yes, exactly, your head back like that. Now, lick your lips and look at me.”

She loved these orders. He exuded power in giving them, but she had learnt a valuable lesson today.

She had a bit of power as well.

Waiting until his full attention was back on her, only then did she lick her lips and arch her back ever so slightly.

“Yes. All right.” His Adams Apple bobbed in his neck. “Now you may resume your story. I think we left off yesterday just when the Troll-Lord was about to remove Cristabelle’s wings. And don’t skimp on the details. You know how I like seeing everything.”

“My stories are no longer free.” His gaze snapped to meet hers. “But I am prepared to trade you for the next installment.” Flirting with disaster she was. Not only her position here at Ballencrieff, but something more dire, her heart. So be it. She would suffer the consequences of both.

His eyes were entirely fixed on her lips. His chain clanked against the bare floor. “A trade?” He flicked his paintbrush against his open palm. “It would appear, Miss Owl, you are learning the ways of the world. Very well, I am open to a fair trade. What would you have of me?”

She sat up straighter, struggling to maintain her new-found power. “A kiss.”

His brush dropped to the floor.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

As a girl Jess escaped the world of rigorous ballet class and hideous math homework into the haven of toe wriggling romance novels. Now she writes them! Jess lives in New York City with her husband and son and disappears to the Catskill Mountains whenever she can. She is a sometime actress, award-winning batik artist, and accomplished seamstress. Along with her sewing machine, she loves power tools, and, what’s more, she knows how to use them. Jess is currently working on renovating a condo in uptown Manhattan (The Lipstick on a Pig Project) and writing two other stories for the Reluctant Hearts series, Captivated by the Countess, and Daft for a Duke.

Visit Jess at https://jessrussellromance.com/