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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Dressmaker’s Duke by Jess Russell


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Rhys Merrick, Duke of Roydan, is determined to be the antitheses of his depraved father, repressing his desires so severely he is dubbed “the Monk” by Society. But when Olivia Weston turns up demanding payment for gowns ordered by his former mistress, Rhys is totally flummoxed and inexplicably smitten. He pays her to remove her from his house, and mind. But logic be damned, he must have this fiercely independent woman.

Olivia’s greatest fear is becoming a kept woman. She has escaped the role of mistress once and vows never to be owned by any man. Rather than make money in the boudoir, she chooses to clothe the women who do. But when a fire nearly kills her friend and business partner, Olivia’s world goes up in smoke and she is forced to barter with the lofty duke.

As their lives weave together, Olivia unravels the man underneath the Monk, while Rhys desires to expose the lady hiding behind the dressmaker. Will his raw passion fan a long-buried ember of hope within her? Can this mismatched pair be the perfect fit?

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EXCERPT

What did he expect? Yards of ribbons, ruffles and bows? The demimonde was her niche. And rather than sell herself on her back she chose instead to clothe the women who did.

She raised her chin. “As you see, Your Grace, there is nothing inferior here. I am quite proud of my workmanship, and this design in particular is a favorite of the gentlemen.

“The gentlemen?” The gape collapsed into a scowl.

“Yes. And the ladies as well—my patronesses. In Paris I was quite sought after. I’m sure I will have the same following here in London, as soon as I can properly circulate.”

“Circulate?”

Was he addlepated? He seemed capable of only one-word rejoinders.

“Yes.” She tried speaking to him as if he were a small child incapable of comprehension. “Mrs. Battersby was a great coup for our shop. But now she has lost your protection, Mrs. Wiggins and I will simply have to begin anew. Now, Your Grace, will you take the gown?”

Reason told her only a few seconds could have passed as they stood, his gaze locked to hers in a stalemate, but it seemed interminable.

Finally his jaw twitched.

“Could you move, please?” Was it her imagination, or was his voice higher than usual? Then what he actually said registered.

“Move?”

“Yes. Could you move across the room? I find to judge a garment, or anything properly, one must see it in motion.” Her face must have reflected horror, for he hastened on, “You would not expect me to buy a horse simply by looking at its lines would you, Mrs. Weston? I would wish to see it run as well. I’m sure you understand.”

Blast him and his bloody horses. She strode forward, happy to vent some of her anger in movement; however, she realized a split second too late there was nowhere to move. The receiving room was not large and was mostly taken up with the cutting table. The only area with any appreciable room was at the far end of the shop where the huge paneled mirrors stood. He was standing directly in the path that would be her best direction. Consequently, she found herself almost flush up against him.

She knew he was tall. Any fool could see the man was at least two or more inches over six feet, but from this vantage point—directly beneath him—he was so very tall. She could smell the starch of his shirt mixed with a faint whiff of smoke and possibly brandy. She slid her gaze over the shirt and waistcoat to his cravat—a conservatively tied Oriental—to the firm, slightly cleft chin, moving on to the lips, very swiftly past those, and finally resting on his eyes. Pure molten gold. Yes, exactly like those of the Burmese tiger she had seen at a menagerie in Paris. His bearing was just as predatory.

“It would appear, sir, in order for me to move, as you require, you will have to bestir yourself as well.”

She thought she saw one side of his mouth shift ever so slightly upward into what might be the merest twitch of a smile. She could not be one hundred percent sure because, to do so, she would have to look at his lips. The duke shifted his weight and made a small bow. Her shoulder brushed the superfine of his midnight blue jacket as she hurriedly squeezed past him.

She strode almost to the mirrors before wheeling around and giving him what she hoped was an accusatory look.

“Well, Your Grace. I hope you are satisfied.”

“Satisfied, Mrs. Weston?” He raised that infernal eyebrow. “Oh no, madam, I am very far from satisfied. However, I am hopeful I will be, in the not so distant future.” Again his gaze raked over her. “Yes, I do live in hope.” He turned and began to gather his things. “You may send this gown to me in the morning.”

“But won’t you want the young woman to come in for a fitting?”

The duke stopped in the middle of donning his left glove. He looked at her as if she was being deliberately obtuse or worse, coy, and once more raised that bloody eyebrow. She chose to ignore his rapier-like weapon.

“Your Grace, this gown is deceptive in its simplicity. It looks uncomplicated, but in fact it requires, at the very least, one fitting to assure it hangs properly. I will not send out a gown that does not fit perfectly. You must understand I have my reputation to think of.”

Hot brandy eyes seared hers. “Madam, believe me, I am very cognizant of your reputation. As a modiste you need not fear,” he said as he slowly drew on his left glove and flexed his fingers. “I assure you the gown will fit like this glove.”

With that, he turned and opened the door.

“I will be back for the next gown tomorrow. Shall we say at the same time?”

He clearly did not need or require an answer. Olivia’s mouth dropped open as the shop door closed, its jangle of bells mocking her frayed nerves.

Oh God, it was not over. Not nearly over. In fact, it seemed the Duke of Roydan had just begun.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jess Russell now Multi-Award Winning and Best-selling 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.

Jess Russell is a member of RWA, as well as the Beau Monde and the NY chapters of RWA.

http://jessrussellromance.com

THE DRESSMAKER’S DUKE was a double finalist in the National Readers Choice Awards for Best First Book and Best Historical. Also finaled in the Heart of Excellence Readers Choice Contest. The book came in first in the Fool for Love Contest, Golden Apple Awards’ Secret Craving Contest, the Indiana Golden Opportunity Contest and the Golden Rose Contest (also winning the best of the best). And finaled in the Great Beginnings, Emerald City Opener, and the Lone Star Contests.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Virtue: Sons of Scotland #1 by Victoria Vane


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A man without a past…

Abandoned at a monastery as a young child, Alexander serves two masters—God and the fading memories of his past life—the one he never got to live. As he nears the day to take his vows, he’s sent on a last sojourn into the real world, but what begins as a test of faith becomes a journey to manhood.

And a woman who doesn’t know her own heart…

Born from the line of two kings, Lady Sibylla Mac William is abandoned by her sire as a child and then ruled illegitimate. Though she lives a happy life under her uncle’s protection, Sibylla craves something more, but never could she imagine losing her heart to the would-be monk who unexpectedly arrives to tutor her brother.

Together, they will forge the future of a kingdom…

When dark secrets from the past come to light, Alex and Sibylla’s fates become inextricably entwined. Will Alex choose the safe and secure path he knows, or will he reject holy orders to embrace his true destiny… and the woman he loves?

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EXCERPT

Twilight made a rapid descent on Cnoc Croit na Maoile, cloaking the forested part of the path in deep shadow and making the way difficult. Twice, she stumbled and a short while later, caught her foot on a root that sent her sprawling to the ground.

Alex was there swiftly to help her back up. “Are ye a’right, lass?”

“Aye. I’m nae hurt,” she lied.

He could clearly see that her face was scratched, her palms were scraped, and her tunic had been torn by a limb. He gently brushed away the dirt and tenderly kissed her palms before entwining his fingers with hers. “’Tis best if I lead ye now.”

Although the rest of the way was easier, Alex was reluctant to release her hand.

“Ye still havena told me what troubles ye, Alexander,” she said, breaking the silence.

“I’ve learned some things about my family since coming here,” he said.

“Aye?” She stopped to face him. “How did this come about?”

“Yer uncle recognized my sgian-dubh. He says he kent my faither.”

“He did? How? What did he tell ye?” she asked.

Alex drew a great breath into his lungs and released it on a sigh. There was so much he wished to confide, but what could tell her? How much did he dare to share? “Only that my faither was an enemy of the king.”

“The king has many enemies,” she replied, “especially in Moray. Did ye ken my máthair’s faither was a king in his own right? His lands stretched from one sea to the other, but his son, Angus, forfeited everything when he rebelled against the crown.”

“My faither found himself in a similar situation,” Alex said. “There was substantial… property… that should have come to him by right through his faither, but the king disagreed.”

“’Tis the Cenn Mór way to do such things,” she said.

“Dinna ye also carry Cenn Mór blood?” he asked.

“Only a quarter,” she corrected. “And I dinna regard that part of me any more than my sire regarded his Scots blood. He was a lowlander by birth who chose to be Sassenach. I, on the contrary, choose to be a Highlander.”

Her answer evoked a chuckle.

“Ye should do that more often,” she said.

“Do what?” he asked.

“Laugh. ‘Tis the first time I heard ye laugh.”

“Monasteries dinna encourage much laughter,” he said dryly.

“But yer nae there anymore, are ye?”

“I am nae.”

“Then ye need to laugh more freely,” she insisted.

They’d emerged from the forested path, Alex halted and turned to face her. “If ‘twill please ye,” he said. “I will try.”

“Aye,” she said. “But ‘twould please me even better if ye would kiss me again.”

Alex instinctively leaned toward her, wanting to give her the kiss, but knowing where it would lead. “I canna, Sibylla,” he said, stroking her cheek. “This should ne’er have happened between us.”

“But it did,” she said. “Do ye regret it so much, Alexander?”

“Regret? Nae.” He shook his head. “I only regret that it canna be.”

He’d gone to the promontory seeking solace for his distressed spirit, and found balm in Sibylla’s kiss. He knew it was far more than carnal lust, but it was futile to think they could ever be together. “I am no one with nothing,” he said. “This can go nowhere.”

“But things can change Alexander,” she said. “I believe our destinies lie in our own hands.”

“Ye do nae have faith in Divine Providence?” He wondered again at her lack of piety.

“I do. I believe God sets many things in motion but the choices we make, for better or for ill, are ours alone. I believe ye came here for a reason, Alexander. I believe our meeting was meant to be.”

Alex, once more, recalled the eerie words of her grandmother. “Lady Olith said as much.”

Her eyes grew wide. “My grandmother spoke of us?”

“Aye.” He hesitated to say more, but found himself compelled to ask, “Is she right in the head?”

“She’s a seer, Alexander,” Sibylla answered. “She has visions.”

“Have they ever proven true?” he asked.

“Many times. She kent her son, Angus, would be killed in battle. She also kent that Domnall and I would come here… what did she say to ye?”

“I dinna remember it well,” he lied. He remembered every word but speaking more of it would only give credence to what he could not, would not, believe.

“Surely ye recall something of her words,” she insisted, “else ye would nae have spoken of it.”

“Sibylla!” A shout startled them apart before Alex could respond; it was Domnall galloping toward them. “What is this!” He flung himself down from his mount with an accusing stare. “Where have ye been, Sibylla? The entire clan is looking for ye.”

His gaze darted from Sibylla to Alex and back again, and then narrowed in suspicion as he took in Sibylla’s torn gown and scratched face.

He took a step toward them with his hand on his sword. “What were ye doing with my sister?”

“Nae, Domnall!” Sibylla quickly interposed herself between them. “’Tis nae what ye think!”

His gaze narrowed. “I ken what I see.”

“Alex did nothing amiss,” she said. “I fell out of a tree.”

“Ye fell?” He snorted in disbelief.

“Aye,” she insisted. “I was in the great oak at the standing stones when Alexander came and—”

His raised a silencing hand. “Enough!” Domnall pierced Alex with a challenging look. “What have ye to say about this, monk?”

“I dinna dishonor yer sister,” Alex said. “I give ye my sacred vow.”

Domnall considered him for a long, tense moment. There was no sign of their earlier camaraderie in his expression. Would he draw his sword? Alex fingered his sgian-dubh, praying he wouldn’t be forced to defend himself.

“In my experience, a vow is only as good as the man who makes it. And I still dinna ken what to make of ye. Come, Sibylla,” Domnall commanded. “Ye will ride back with me.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Alex as she passed, her gaze downcast.

Alex warily watched as Domnall lifted her onto the horse. Of all the sins he’d committed in his life, some might be worthy of mortal punishment, but a kiss certainly wasn’t one of them. Then again, if he had perished under Domnall’s sword, he could never regret meeting death with Sibylla’s sweet kiss still lingering on his lips.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Victoria Vane is a bestselling, award-winning author of smart and sexy romance. Her books have received more than twenty awards and nominations to include the 2015 Red Carpet Award for JEWEL OF THE EAST, 2014 RONE Award for TREACHEROUS TEMPTATIONS, and 2012 Library Journal Best E-Book romance for THE DEVIL DEVERE series. Victoria also has a passion for historical fashion and lives in the beautiful upstate of South Carolina with her husband, two sons, a little black dog, and an Arabian horse.

Contact info:
Email: victoria.vane@hotmail.com Website: www.victoriavane.com
Blog: www.embracingromance.com Facebook: http://on.fb.me/YVeXrf
Twitter: @authorvictoriav Pinterest: http://bit.ly/1vONQZh
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Echoes of the Moon (Rhythm of the Moon #3) by Jennifer Taylor


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Bethan Owen would give her life for her identical twin. With the care of Elunid’s troubled mind resting on her shoulders, she knows the love of a man will never be possible. But she can’t fight her attraction to the mystifying Henry Stephens, who, despite his lowly occupation as a night soil man, captivates her with his courtly manners and vitality.

Henry’s entire life revolves around building a fulfilling life for his mentally challenged son. When the vibrant and beautiful Bethan captures his heart, his world changes, but the secrets he harbors remain. Will he be able to give himself completely to the one he loves?

When Elunid’s behavior becomes more unstable, she makes a vicious enemy. Bethan is forced to make the greatest sacrifice, exchanging her life for her sister’s. Can Henry save Bethan and keep their love alive? Or will the dangerous adversary destroy all that is dear to them both?

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EXCERPT

King’s Harbour, England 1736

Bethan Owen stood in the doorway of the Siren Inn, drawing dawn’s gray light around her like a cloak. She peered down the cobbled street at the English Channel, cool mist bathing her face and washing the sleep from her eyes. Patches of green churning sea sliced through the heavy fog, revealing a ribbon of pink and violet at the horizon. Her twin sister Elunid would be relieved when she awoke to see the sun in the sky, for every night at sunset she feared it would never return.

She sighed. If only her sister could break through the darkness like the sun. She straightened her shoulders, breathed in the fresh new day. She would draw strength from this moment of peace, for Elunid would require her utmost vigilance, and soon the inn would be bustling with customers. Who knew what new faces the tide would bring?

The squeak of wagon wheels on the next street over interrupted her reverie. Of course, who else would be working this time of day but Henry the night soil man and his son, George? Henry’s bass voice rumbled softly, making her ears tingle. Why did the accursed man have such an effect on her?

“The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out
And brings adventure with it.
Be it rowboat or frigate, or schooner
They’ve stories to tell, fine items to sell
And I wish they’d be getting here sooner.”

George joined in with his sweet tenor at a much higher volume.

“Too loud, Son. We mustn’t disturb the good people of King’s Harbour. They would not appreciate being awakened by the sound of their own shite hitting the barrel.”

George giggled. “Da!”

Henry laughed, and every bit of skin on Bethan’s body warmed in the cool air.

“Take a care, my boy. Lift with your legs. That’s right. Climb up now, you may take the reins. Do you know where to go next?”

“Yes, Da.”

She should go inside, have a peaceful cup of tea before Elunid awoke. Would her sister be defiant and fearful today? Or would she be like her old self, clever and funny with an intense artistic flair?

Instead she closed her eyes and leaned against the doorway, letting the man’s soft, yet curiously cultured words glide into her, unraveling the worry tangling her thoughts like fishing rope.

“That’s it. Easy there. You’ll get more from this fine lady horse with a firm but gentle touch.”

Like Henry’s touch upon her arm, mindful of her safety as they’d searched for Elunid a few months ago. A most noxious odor wafted up the street, quashing the memory of his touch. The wagon appeared around the corner at the bottom of the street, and the two hopped out.

Henry grunted as they lifted the yoke into their shoulders, the barrel at the end. “Remember what the old bard said?”

“I don’t know. He said a lot of things.”

“Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Bethan forgot the stench upon recognizing the words of William Shakespeare. Measure for Measure? How did a night soil man come to quote the immortal words of the bard? Most puzzling, and likely the reason she couldn’t get Henry out of her mind.

They soon returned to the wagon, and Henry watched George, a small smile on his face.

George scratched the horse behind the ears. “Good girl. I shall never hurt you.”

They made their way up the street, and the closer they got, the more repulsive the odor became. She covered her mouth with a handkerchief but couldn’t take her eyes away from his broad shoulders and wide back, looking strong enough to carry any burden. Even hers. He waved at her and strode up the street.

He walks like royalty, not as if he has the most disgusting job in town. She lowered the cloth as curiosity got the better of her.

He stopped a good twenty paces from her, took off his work gloves, and bowed. “I shan’t get too close, Mistress Bethan. Good morrow.” He had eyes the color of Lena’s best summer ale. “You’re up early.”

She nodded. “It’s peaceful this time of day, when the town is still asleep.”

“Except for us.” He grinned. He wore no hat, and his black hair curled around his face. “I enjoy my work for the same reason.”

“You enjoy your work?” Was the man mad?

He nodded, his eyes darkening from summer ale to stout. “Why should I not, despite the nature of it? It’s honest and important work.” He turned toward his son. “And a good trade for young George to learn.”

What a snob she was. “I didn’t mean to insult.”

He stepped forward, and she stepped back, rapping her elbow on the door frame. “Ouch!”

He rushed toward her. “Are you all right?”

His fingers on her arm were warm and reassuring as she closed her eyes and waited for the stars to disappear from her vision. Then she came to her senses and recoiled from him.

He backed away. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your reverie, Mistress Bethan.” Formal, cold.

Emptiness echoed in the pit of her stomach; she had offended him. Why should she care? Nevertheless, she watched him retreat down the hill toward his son. Such a mystery.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jennifer Taylor spent her childhood running wild on an Idaho mountainside. Although she’s lived across the U.S., she’s still an Idahoan at heart and a notorious potato pusher. She has a degree in Human Services and has been a roofer, a hoofer, a computer data entry operator and a stay-at-home mom.

She’s dreamt of writing historical romances since reading WUTHERING HEIGHTS at the tender age of twelve, and is now living her dream of writing love stories set in 18th Century England. She feverishly lobbies for the return of breeches and would love to see her husband of thirty-four years in a pair.

Jennifer lives in rural Florida with her husband and enjoys the comings and goings of their three grown children and three grandchildren.

Visit Jennifer on her website www.jennifertaylorwrites.com

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: River Road (Tortured Souls #3) by R.C. Matthews

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When a pirate and voodoo priestess must lift a deadly curse on those they love, do they dare let a relationship blossom amid danger? River Road is the gothically satisfying end to this fan-favorite series!

Charles Moore relishes his dangerous life as the pirate Hatchet, since manning a clipper ship keeps his mind off the role he played in the brutal Civil War. But now an ancient curse has killed two of his loves, and he can’t ignore the whispers that New Orleans’s Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau herself, has hexed his family.

Creole widow Hope Leblonc bristles under the city’s Black Codes that have stripped her of so many freedoms and forced her practice of voodoo underground. When Hatchet treats her like the respectable woman she is, she offers him a deal: she’ll lift the curse if he’ll steal back a family relic she needs to become a mambo in her religion.

But they’re both holding secrets that endanger their lives. When ghosts from the past exact revenge for the skeletons in the Moore family closet, they reveal a connection between Hope and Hatchet that makes the curse more powerful than ever. Will they discover that love is worth the risk in time to survive the coming darkness?

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EXCERPT

“What nonsense do you speak of?” his father asked with a lift of his brow. “Charles is cursed? By whom?”

“Something about a voodoo queen,” Maribeth replied with a shrug. “I should like to meet her. Do you know her?”

“Certainly not,” his father said with a sniff. “Marie Laveau hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. She might be dead for all I know. Do not speak of her or this voodoo nonsense again unless you’re keen on spending the night in a dank jail cell.” His gaze met Hatchet’s. “That’s what happens these days to those who practice the dark arts.”

“Well, what’re we going to do with this baggage?” Victor asked, scowling. “Can’t very well send her back to England unattended.”

Father set her back on her feet. “She’s more than welcome to join us. Charles, your mother will return to the plantation after a short stay in the city. You and Maribeth should accompany her. Harmon Grove offers many amusements for a curious young lady.”

Hatchet could not commit to anything until he found a quiet moment to mull over the situation. Dammit! Maribeth’s presence was problematic, robbing him of hours that would be better served in pursuit of information on the curse.

“Let me think on it after we settle in. The girl is young and fragile, making her vulnerable to disease,” he said with a pointed look in her direction. “I don’t want her too close to Mother.”

His little charge growled. “I’m not fragile.”

Father waved his hand. “No worries on that front. Lucetta is already back on her feet and a woman about town. Been at least a week since she recovered. Only last evening, she prayed for your early arrival so we might celebrate your birthday. She’ll be delighted when I share the news.”

“Is that so?” Hatchet asked with a long drawl. “Your letter left no doubt as to her condition. ‘Mother lies on her deathbed and begs for your return.’ Those were your exact words.”

Brushing away an imaginary speck on his jacket, his father avoided his gaze. “Yes, a remarkable recovery. Well, I must be off. I’ll send the carriages around before noon. Please, do not dally. Your mother will be intolerable company until you arrive. Perhaps I shall keep your early arrival a secret.”

“Speaking of secrets,” Hatchet said, walking with his father to the gangplank, away from prying little ears. “What business do you have on The Angelica? The captain and crew are untrustworthy, the lot of them. Best not to be seen dealing with them.”

Father folded his arms and puffed out his chest. “You’re advising me? I’m rather more than seven, my dear boy. Did you fail to notice the early-morning hour of my visit or my black attire? The Moore-Lloyd Shipping Co. is the most successful shipping venture this side of the Gulf. Believe me when I say I know precisely what I’m doing. But I thank you for your concern.”

A few moments later, Father entered his carriage, and Hatchet let out a sigh as the horses clomped away.

“Yes, Father, I noticed both the early hour and your fine clothing, along with the company crest on your carriage.”

Little had changed in his absence. Mother still manipulated the people who loved her by any means available, and Father knew what was best for them all. Well, with his mother in good health, at least he would have plenty of time to investigate the rumors of the blasted curse. His Nicolette and Emma were dead, as well as the spouses of his siblings. With four deaths among them, Hatchet could no longer blame coincidence. He must rid his family of the hex. And then he would get the bloody hell out of New Orleans, again.

As he turned to attend his duties, another carriage rolled to a stop in front of The Angelica. The driver hopped to the ground and assisted a woman out. Unlike Isaac, this woman did nothing to disguise her appearance as she boldly boarded the pirate ship.

Even from a distance, Hatchet discerned her beauty: a rich, bronze skin tone and lustrous black hair. New Orleans had many attractive women, but the best among them were the Creoles, forbidden as wives but coveted as lovers. His loins stirred as his gaze roved over her full bosom, to her cinched waist and the gentle swell of her behind.

“I’ve sent Maribeth to break her fast with Mercy,” Victor said, leaning his hip against the rail. “We’ve a lot to accomplish before noon.”

His gaze followed Hatchet’s to the forecastle deck of The Angelica, and he whistled. “Captain Corbin doesn’t waste time. You should seek out female company while in town. Tomorrow is your birthday, after all. We buried Emma nearly six months ago. You must move on at some point, and a brothel poses no risk. You will not fall in love with a lady of the night.”

Lie with another woman? No, he could not. But as he watched an argument unfold between Captain Corbin and the exotic minx, he couldn’t deny her allure.

“Maybe,” Hatchet amended as the black-haired beauty slapped the captain then stomped down the gangplank. “I’ve never sought one night of pleasure in the arms of a comely wench. Perhaps I must accept that as my fate, because falling in love three times in one lifetime seems against all odds.”

At least he had that going for him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

R.C. Matthews lives in Michigan where she enjoys the four seasons and indulging her imagination while writing romances. Find R.C. Matthews at http://www.rcmatthews.com/, on Facebook, and on Twitter @RCMatthews123.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Heart and Dagger by Holland Rae

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Armand never expected the captain of the most notorious mercenary crew in the Spanish Main to look so familiar…

Lady Charlotte Talbot hasn’t seen Armand Rajaram de Bourbon, her oldest childhood friend and once betrothed, since his family returned to India when she was fifteen. Since then, she has left a groom at the altar, changed her name to Catalina Sol, opened a house for unwed mothers and orphans, and captained a ship, the Liberté, crewed by the best fighters in the Spanish Main. She’s no longer the lady he left behind, not that she’d admit to wishing he’d return.

When Armand’s brother is kidnapped, he breaks his rule of never engaging with pirates. But desperation drives him to the Liberté and a life he thought he’d left far behind. He’d do anything to save Henri, but Armand never expected to find Charlotte here, and now that’s he’s found her, he doesn’t have a clue what to do about it.

Together, they must face kidnapping, pirate captains, blackmail, and themselves. The Liberté may sail thousands of miles from the shores of England, but that might not be far enough to escape the past.

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EXCERPT

Catalina had faced down more swords in her life than half the British Navy. She had fired pistols, fired cannon, swung by unraveling rope onto burning ships. She had dueled, fenced, boxed, and seen more than her fair share of shocking, violent, maddening events in her relatively short life. But nothing short of the literal end of days could have been cause for more surprise than what awaited her under the hood. For sheer lack of other response, she let out a scream that could far more easily have belonged to Charlotte Talbot than the mercenary captain of the Liberté.

“Armand!” Her voice—was that her own voice?—burned with shock and excitement and confusion and all manner of emotions she had long since left behind when earning her own ship and setting for the horizon.

His shock seemed as true as her own, and she surmised that he really hadn’t been able to see much behind the veil of his cloak.

“Charlotte.”

She wanted to nod. She wanted to do something, but she was frozen to the spot, her feet sinking into the floor and her body paralyzed.

“What the devil are you doing?” he asked. “And where the hell is Catalina Sol?”

She shook her head, finally able to get some movement into her frozen limbs.

“Armand,” she whispered his name in shock. “I am Catalina Sol.”

For a moment, the two of them simply stood, facing each other. Catalina took a deep breath, but it did little to steady the racing of her mind and the pounding of her heart against her ribs. It was as if she had seen a ghost, standing just before her in the flesh, as if her dear mama had risen from the grave and sung her a nighttime lullaby. For all she had heard, before taking to the seas, Armand and his family had perished in a fire set by pirates. She had never believed it, not really, but neither had she set about disproving it, either. Armand was a memory, a part of her past best left to the nurseries and schoolrooms of a London townhouse, to the fields and pastures of a countryside estate.

But the Armand who stood before her now—magistrate, she supposed—was not the boy she had waved goodbye to at the docks. With a bite of laughter that she nearly choked on, Catalina knew that her information had been shockingly accurate. This man did have far too many titles to his name. Good lot it seemed to be doing him now. No, this Armand was not a boy at all. He was a man, in the truest sense of the word. His skin was darker than she remembered, likely turned that golden brown by the brush of the sun, and his hair was longer with a silky thickness to it. He even had a small beard growing in, though Catalina got the distinct impression that he was not in the best of states at the moment, and that it was far more likely he was always clean shaven.

And by God, he was tall. His shoulders were wide, stretching that drab cloak, and he towered over her as if she were the size of a sea mite. For a fleeting second, Catalina considered what could have been her husband all those years ago and allowed herself to feel the aching twinge of regret that came with the truth. But then she rallied, pulling herself together and staring him directly in the eye.

“What the devil are you doing here?” she asked him, her voice far calmer than she felt. Her insides were crashing like a great ocean storm against a weak hull, and Catalina knew if she didn’t remove herself from his presence soon, she risked ruining everything she had worked so very hard for.

“I could ask you the same question,” he growled. Ah, of course she had recognized his voice. There was no mistaking the hybrid of accents now, the French lilt to his gentleman’s English, and the way he rolled his letters in imitation of his mother’s native Indian tongue. Yes, it was a distinct combination, and it almost relieved Catalina to know that she had not fabricated it from her mind, when she had first heard him speak from under the hood.

“I’m working,” she replied stiffly, desperately wanting for another mug of ale. Dirty dishrag or not, she could use the liquid courage right now.

“As a pirate.” His words were seething, no less dangerous than a snake spitting poison. Catalina had heard that tone before, and she would hear it many times again, no doubt.

“Did you have a job for a nun, then?” she asked, deciding not to worry over the point of piracy. He would make the assumptions and waste both of their time, or they could simply move on with the business of the day, mainly, her leaving.

“I wish you had become a nun.” He nearly growled it, and a pang of guilt and sadness crashed over her. Truly, they had both faced many trials in the years since they had seen each other last. What was there to be fighting over now, in this impromptu reunion?

“I’m terribly sorry for having disappointed you, then,” she replied. “The church was full.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Holland Rae was born in Manhattan, and considers herself a New Yorker, even though she spent most of her life in New Jersey. She recently moved home from Boston, Mass., where she finished her education in journalism and magazine writing, with a focus on the automotive industry.

She is an avid writer, and has been for years, studying at Emerson College, with writer’s retreats at Kenyon College, Duke University and Simon’s Rock. She loves to travel, and spent her semester abroad living in a 14th century castle in the Netherlands. In her free time she enjoys dreaming up stories, eating spicy food, driving fast cars and talking to strangers.

Visit Holland Rae at https://hollandrae.com/

BOOK BLAST: The Painter’s Apprentice by Laura Morelli

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Star-crossed lovers with a costly secret. As the plague grips Venice, more than a quarantine divides them…

Venice, 1510. Maria Bartolini wants nothing more than to carry on her father’s legacy as a master gilder. Instead, her father has sent her away from the only home she’s ever known to train as an apprentice to Master Trevisan, a renowned painter.

Maria arranges to leave the painter’s workshop to return to her family workshop and to a secret lover waiting for her back home. But the encroaching Black Death foils her plans…

When the painter’s servants uncover the real reason why Maria has been sent away to train with Master Trevisan, they threaten to reveal a secret that could tear down her family and the future of their trade. She is forced to buy the servants’ silence, but as their greed steadily grows, Maria resorts to more desperate measures. She questions whether her heart’s desire is worth risking her family, her trade, and her future, but Maria’s sacrifices may amount to nothing if the plague arrives on her father’s doorstep and steals away everything she’s ever loved…

From the author of the award-winning The Gondola Maker comes a rich tale of Renaissance Venice, a heroine with a lust for life, and love against all odds.

Pre-Order Promotion

Author Laura Morelli is offering a set of great bonuses exclusively to her readers! If you like to delve deeper into the “story behind the story,” you’ll want to take advantage of Laura’s pre-order package, which takes readers behind the scenes of The Painter’s Apprentice with videos, pictures, commentary about Renaissance Venice, and other exclusive content.

Learn more HERE.

Praise for The Gondola Maker

“I’m a big fan of Venice, so I appreciate Laura Morelli’s spe

cial knowledge of the city, the period, and the process of gondola-making. An especially compelling story.” -Frances Mayes, author, Under the Tuscan Sun

“Laura Morelli has done her research, or perhaps she was an Italian carpenter in another life. One can literally smell and feel the grain of finely turned wood in her hands.” -Pamela Sheldon Johns, author, Italian Food Artisans

“Sixteenth-century Venice is the star of Morelli’s well-crafted historical novel about Luca Vianello, the eldest son of the city’s most renowned gondola builder.” -Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review

“The heir to a gondola empire rejects his birthright but comes full circle in this fascinating glimpse into late-Renaissance Venice by art-historian-turned-novelist Morelli (Made in Italy).” -Kirkus Indie Book of the Month

“The Gondola Maker is historical fiction at its best.” -Midwest Book Review

About the Author

Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to national magazines and newspapers. Laura has been featured on CNN Radio, Travel Today with Peter Greenberg, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA TODAY, Departures, House & Garden Magazine, Traditional Home, the Denver Post, Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and other media. Recently her art history lesson, “What’s the difference between art and craft?” was produced and distributed by TED-Ed.

Laura has taught college-level art history at Trinity College in Rome, as well as at Northeastern University, Merrimack College, St. Joseph College, and the College of Coastal Georgia. Laura has lived in five countries, including four years in Italy and four years in France.

Laura Morelli is the author of the guidebook series that includes Made in Italy, Made in France, and Made in the Southwest, all published by Rizzoli / Universe. The Gondola Maker, a historical coming-of-age story about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her first work of fiction.

For more information, please visit Laura Morelli’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

 

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Queen of Paradise Valley by Cat Dubie

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Diana Rennie, daughter of a wealthy rancher, attempts to persuade mystery man Del Russell to leave his grievances behind and forgive her father for past mistakes. Her careful plan goes awry and results in a shotgun wedding and a prison sentence for Del.

Four years later, Del is back in her life with a vengeance—back for his rightful share of Diana’s ranch, back to prove he isn’t the criminal she thought he was, back to finish what the two of them started years ago in a passionate daze. And he isn’t going anywhere, no matter what beautiful, treacherous Diana does or says to try to get rid of him.

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EXCERPT

Proper ladies didn’t go calling on men alone, even in a safe town like Rennieville. She needed to douse his suspicion. If he saw her as a friend and ally, her chances of success would increase, wouldn’t they? Though she’d never tasted whiskey, she said, “Yes, I’ll have a drink.” A surprised frown notched his brow. She added, “If you put on a shirt.”

“Only business I’m interested in is bed business. Why would I get dressed just to undress again?” Eyes skeptical, he offered her the bottle.

Very well. She wouldn’t look at his chest, however tanned and hard-muscled, however taut and—oh, damn. She lifted the bottle to her lips and swallowed a big mouthful, then gagged and coughed as the whiskey boiled up in her throat.

He jerked the bottle away and held it to the light. “Take it easy.”

Eyes watering, she forced the liquor down and composed herself. A deep breath, a nervous swallow. Yes, better. Her face and body hot, she doffed her gloves and cape, dropped them on a chair, and swept a hand across her burning brow.

His gaze again moved from her feet to her head, pausing on her silky white shirt. “Did the old man send you, China Doll?” A silver flare beneath those thick lashes, a quick feral show of teeth. He took another, longer drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

She took a steadying breath. “My name is Diana. Miss Rennie to you.” Did that sound too challenging? “Um, my father doesn’t know I’m here.” She sensed his rising animosity and forced herself to meet his belligerent gaze. They must seem to be on the same side. “He hasn’t been himself since the day you came to our house.”

“Must be his conscience getting after him. He tell you how he caused my father’s death?”

“He told me nothing. Whatever Owen did—”

His black brows lifted. “Owen?”

“Owen. My father.” Defensiveness would only stir his hostility. Time for a little history, enough perhaps to gain some sympathy. She paced a slow circle. “I was born on the ranch. When I was three, my mother took me to New York. I returned nearly four months ago upon Mother’s passing.” Seeking his gaze, she added, a small throb in her voice, “I was lost all those years, lost in a big cold city until I found my home again and my beloved father.” She swallowed. “Yet—I couldn’t call him that, so we settled on his given name for now.”

Was there even a smidgen of empathy in his eyes? She couldn’t tell by his stony expression. He set the bottle down with a thump and leaned back against the table, arms out at the sides, hands resting palm down on the plank surface. The lantern dropped a beacon of light on him, capturing her attention despite her vow not to look at his body. There was insolence in his stance, an overt display of virility. She stared at his muscular thighs and the coarse hairs rising above his breeches.

“Yeah, it’s a sad story. I’ve got one too, because when I was ten I watched your old man send my father to his death. But you, miss well-bred, didn’t come here to chat about your past. What’s your real reason for this visit?” He picked up the bottle and took a deep swallow, eyes on her the entire time.

Controlled anger seemed to roll off him in waves. This wasn’t working as she had planned. She stepped to him. “May I have another drink?”
He passed her the bottle, then crossed his arms over his chest and watched her. Eyes squeezed shut, she took another mouthful and felt the same slow burn as before. She managed not to gag this time but couldn’t stop from grimacing.

“All right.” She spoke with careful precision. “Mr. Russell, um, Del, when you said you might kill Owen, I grew afraid. Terribly afraid. I came here to appeal to you to leave Rennieville, leave my father in peace. He—he’s very torn up about this business. He’s remorseful and sad and ashamed, and—oh—it breaks my heart to see him that way.” Was this working? One more mouthful of whiskey. God, it was awful. She shuddered and scrubbed her mouth with the heel of her hand.

He grabbed the bottle and set it away. “You’ll be on the floor if you keep drinking.”

She gazed at him with what she assumed was earnest trust, her hands clasped as if in prayer. “Will you leave town? What would your father want you to do?” Damn. Did that sound right? Her cheeks burned hotter. Would a tear be too much? Shouldn’t have had that last drink. She was losing direction, grasping for words. “Um, didn’t you say he forgave Owen? Can’t you do that too, for your father?”

Outside, the rising wind gusted around the eaves and skidded along the roof, flapping loose wooden shingles. He looked up and listened to the low thrum of the wind as if it were speaking to him.

“And,” she added, “you can look for his remains. Why, I’ll help you.”

He stared at her. “Hell, you must really want me gone.”

“I—I want peace for my father. Can you understand that?”

Another gust of wind scuffled the shingles and tossed some to the ground, while in the stove burning wood crackled and hissed. He rubbed a hand over his chin and up the side of his face. He was thinking, considering, weighing; his jaw tightened, then relaxed. “The hardest thing in the world is watching your father die. After all these years it’s damn hard to let it go—”

A chink had formed in his armor. Time to strike. Her voice soft, she said, “But you will, won’t you?” She thrust out her hand.

“You’ve had enough.”

“No. I want us to shake hands on our agreement that you’ll leave.”

One side of his mouth twitched into a half-smile. “If it’ll get rid of you so I can go back to bed…” He clasped her hand, his palm rough and calloused, and she felt a curious vibration in her fingers. Their gazes locked, and she was transfixed by his eyes of pebbled slate webbed with silver. Without another word he placed her palm flat on his chest and covered it with his hand.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Cat Dubie moved to Canada from Austria at the age of four, grew up on the wide-open prairies, and traveled extensively through cowboy country. An avid reader and writer since young, when she read her first historical romance she knew what she must write. After raising three children and working as a technical writer for the government, she moved with her family to the Pacific coast and follows her dream of sharing her stories.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar by Rachel Tsoumbakos

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Lagertha was known to be one of the wives of the famous Viking Ragnar Lodbrok. But did you know they first met each other at a brothel? And just how long did their marriage last? Was Lagertha really the revered shield maiden we see her as today? ‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ aims to unravel all these secrets.

‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ is so much more than a history book though.

In Part One their story is brought to life with a historically accurate retelling. Part Two then explores the historical facts surrounding this story.

‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ aims to discover just how much of what we know of the shield maiden Lagertha and the famous Ragnar Lodbrok in popular culture today is actually true.

‘The Truth About’ series explores the historical fact from present day fiction in regards to the Vikings and other key historical figures that existed in the Viking era.

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EXCERPT

“Did you see that woman?” Ragnar was sitting next to one of the fires burning bright in Fro’s village. The tinder had once been a building and the fire blazed high up into the dark sky. “Her hair was like gold spun with fire.”

Erik laughed at him. “Such a fancy way to describe bloodmatted hair, have you sipped Odin’s gift while I was not looking? You can have you warrior women, I am happy with a woman I do not have to fear can match me in a fight.”

There was laughter as the men listened in on the conversation.

“She intrigues me,” Ragnar said to no one in particular. “I need to find out more about her.”

“Are you really after a common whore? And what of Aslaug? Is she not warming your bed now she has presented you with so many sons?” The questions came from the back of the group. He searched the shadows but couldn’t work out who had said it.

“I think it is one thing to be a common whore, but quite another to be raised noble and trained as a shield maiden but be forced into that life because of a dispute between leaders.” He ignored the other questions about Aslaug. Yes, she had borne him many sons, and yes, she was no longer eager to share their bed. It was complicated and something he did not feel like addressing with a field full of drunkards. Besides, here he was, far away from his wife’s bed, and it was a given someone else was likely to warm his furs while away from home.

There was silence for a moment, as if the crowd was not sure whether to pursue the unanswered questions as they contemplated the way noble standing can fall so quickly at the folly of kings.

Then someone raised their drinking horn and proposed another toast, this time to the valkyries.

“On all sides saw I | Valkyries assemble,
Ready to ride | to the ranks of the gods;
Skuld bore the shield, | and Skogul rode next,
Guth, Hild, Gondul, | and Geirskogul.
Of Herjan’s maidens | the list have ye heard,
Valkyries ready | to ride o’er the earth.”

Several men cheered, likening her to a maiden of Herjan, or outright calling her a valkyrie. Others still, thought she was more like a beserker, entering the battle with a bloodlust normally reserved for them.

Regardless, cheering returned and Ragnar moved to the edge of the fire. He gazed deeply into the flames, his thoughts distracted by the maiden he had seen. He remembered her golden hair flicking out behind her, her face as he had slain Fro, and chuckled to himself. She had been both relieved and angry at Fro’s death. Ragnar suspected she wanted the victory for herself, and he didn’t blame her for those thoughts. He would have been downright outraged at not being able to bring justice to a man how had wronged him. The thought of her being upset with him over Fro’s death both upset and aroused him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rachel Tsoumbakos is a stay home mother of two. Her main passions are writing, reading and organic gardening. Rachel lives with her husband, two kids, three cats and seven chickens in suburban Melbourne, Australia.

While she has several articles published through mainstream magazines, she has also written extensively for The Inquisitr.

Over the years, Rachel has been interested in many aspects of history. When studying a Library Studies diploma, she discovered just how much she enjoyed researching and has since used these skills in several of her novels.

However, it was her work with The Inquisitr that brought her into the world of the Vikings and she has spent several years delving into the sagas of this culture as well as the history of the Viking Era.

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Rachel-Tsoumbakos/e/B004Q2IRR6
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Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/mrszoomby

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Brambles and Thorns by Jocelyn Kirk

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Elena Bellwood’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother dies and leaves her penniless. She is forced to move from her beloved home in New York City to live with an aunt in Connecticut—an aunt she never knew existed. During her journey north, she meets Benjamin Garrick, a blunt-spoken gentleman with a strange hobby. Against her will, Elena finds herself attracted to his manly demeanor, and she is both pleased and flustered to learn he is a close friend of her aunt and lives in the same village.

In her new life with Aunt Rosalie, Elena begins to question her past. Why had she never been told of her aunt? What is the significance of the odd items she found in her mother’s bedroom? Who is the stranger in town that seems always to be staring at her? To answer these questions, Elena must explore past secrets that tear apart her world.

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EXCERPT

The duke took her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you for coming, Your Grace.” She seated herself and the duke did likewise. Willa entered, and Elena ordered tea.

“I owe you an apology,” the duke began, “for not attending your mother’s funeral. I was out of the city for a few days on business, and the weather forced me to stay in Queens for an extra day.”

“Pray do not distress yourself. No one can stop snow when it decides to fall. You are here now, and I am deeply grateful for it.”

Willa came in with tea, and Elena served it. The duke sipped the hot liquid and devoured two of the sweet buns Willa placed on the table. He said nothing while he ate, rather surprising Elena with his silence.

Perhaps, she reasoned, he is gathering his courage for the presentation of his proposals. She attempted to wait patiently.

Finally, he spoke. “Miss Bellwood, what are your future plans?”

A thrill ran through her. “I…am not certain.”

“Have you no family to go to? You are not contemplating remaining in New York alone, I trust.”

“No. I have an aunt in Connecticut. I suppose I must go to her, unless…”

The duke started to speak but halted his words. He sighed and took her hand.

“I am fond of you, Elena, and because I care for you, I cannot be satisfied with being less than honest. To you I will speak the truth.”
“My dear duke, what do you mean?”

“I believe—correct me if I am mistaken—my attentions to you may perhaps have given rise to expectations…”

Elena instantly decided to be as frank as he. She took a deep breath and attempted to speak calmly. “Yes, perhaps they did, on my mother’s part, if not quite certainly my own.”

“If you recall, I was going to wait upon you on the day of your mother’s death.”

“Yes.”

“My purpose in calling was to request a private interview with you…”

“A private interview?”

“Yes. I feared that there had been some talk about us, and I wanted you to know, to forewarn you before the news broke.”

“Forewarn me? Your Grace, what do you mean?”

He smoothed his trousers. “Elena, a few days before your mother died, I engaged myself to Miss Julia Howarth—”

“Engaged yourself! Do you mean…?”

“Engaged to be married, yes.”

“Dear God! You were dancing with me—flirting with me—while engaged to another woman! That is despicable!”

He shrugged. “When you are in my arms, Elena, I find it impossible to think of anyone but you. I am not quite in love with you, but very near.”

She stared at him in horror and disbelief. “You are half in love with me, but then you—but why not…?”

He answered her unarticulated question. “My dear, you have no dowry, whereas Miss Howarth will bring the equivalent of thirty thousand English pounds. I am thirty-six years old, not a foolish young blade who would marry out of unalloyed devotion to the object of his desires. My inquiries as to your inheritance were met with the shocking information of your mother’s indebtedness. And now…rumor has it that you are destitute.”

“Good God!” Elena cried, unable to control her tongue. “You, with your wealth, would spurn me because my mother left no money?”

“Calm yourself, my dear, I pray you. The reason I am wealthy—and my family is wealthy—is because we never take any material step without a consideration of the financial aspects of it. I find you extremely charming and attractive, and I was willing to make you my choice even if your mother’s estate had been moderate. But no man in my condition of life would be so foolish as to take a bride who brings nothing to the marriage—not wealth nor noble blood nor future property. I would be a laughingstock.”

Elena leaned back in her chair, barely able to breathe from the shock of his revelations. She felt giddy and faint. She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to find breath to form words. The duke poured sherry and attempted to hold the glass to her lips, but she pushed his hand away with such force that the sweet wine spilled on the settee and splashed her silk gown.

“Elena, I beseech you, calm yourself. I am here to offer you a different type of proposal, and you may very well find this one equally to your liking.”

She raised her eyes to his face and stared at him. A cold chill ran down her back, and she shivered.

“Surely you are aware that most men in my position in life marry for wealth or family considerations, often to women for whom they have little desire. In such cases, it is customary for a gentleman to…to…”

“To keep a mistress?” Elena gasped, able to speak at last.

He shrugged. “To put it plainly, yes.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jocelyn’s fascination with life in the 1800s began when she was a teenager and started reading historical novels. She was influenced by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Jocelyn resides in the historic town of Mystic, Connecticut.

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.