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Christmas With...Anne Cleeland & Giveaway!

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This short story is from British detective series featuring Chief Inspector Acton and his partner, Kathleen Doyle. Murder in Hindsight, the third book in the series, will launch April, 2015 and is available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Murder at Christmas

Doyle was aware she was a sad disappointment to Reynolds, but nevertheless she wished, sometimes, that he would remember that she was not really a baroness, but was instead a shant from Dublin, masquerading as a baroness courtesy of Acton. The servant was trying to plan a menu for Christmas because one of Acton’s old friends was coming over, and Reynolds seemed to think this called for a state occasion. Since she and Acton had never entertained before—and with good reason—he could be forgiven for jumping on it like a jackdaw; no doubt he was relieved at finally having something to boast about at the butler’s pub, if there was such a thing.

Reynolds prompted, “So now that we’ve determined upon the soup, and the fish filet, we’ve only the main course left, madam. Coq au vin, perhaps?”

Doyle had no idea what “cocovan” was, and rather than reveal her ignorance, took refuge in being cross as she wound her feet around the stool. “I’ve no idea, Reynolds, and Timothy likes plain food, anyway.”

This comment was discreetly ignored as the frowning servant bent over his notes and mused, “Lord Acton never seems to indicate a preference.”

With a mighty effort, Doyle shook off her sulks and offered, “I know his mother served him Cornish hens at Trestles.”

Reynolds immediately plucked up. “Is that so, madam? Can you remember how they were dressed?”

Doyle stared at him for a moment. “Well, they had those funny little paper things on their legs.”

Reynolds bowed his head, but Doyle knew he was wanting to laugh out loud, which made her annoyed all over again, since he was the one who’d asked the absurd question, not her.

Fortunately, at this juncture Acton pinged her mobile, and she gratefully accepted the interruption. “Hallo, husband; I am tryin’ to convince Reynolds that he need only tuck a kidney pie in the oven for Christmas dinner.”

The servant shot her an admonishing look as he gathered up his notes and, with a dignified tread, retreated out of earshot.

“Tell him to serve Chinese food, instead.”

She laughed aloud; she was fond of Chinese food, but her husband was not. “Can’t; he’d quit on the spot. He wants to serve cockervan, or somethin’.”

“We may have to put our plans on hold, I’m afraid.”

Hearing the nuance in his tone, she was suddenly on high alert. “What’s happened? Is your mother runnin’ amok, again?”

“Nothing so simple; I must make a visit to Burroughs in West Sussex, and I’d like you to accompany me, if you would.”

Doyle wracked her brain, and came up empty. “Is Burroughs one of your estates?”

“No; Burroughs is Lord Aldwich’s seat. He has encountered a small problem, and seeks my advice.”

Long used to Acton-speak, Doyle interpreted this remark to mean there was an inconvenient murder—nothing less would cancel their Christmas plans—and that Acton needed her to do a little listening. Doyle was fey, and could hear when lies were being told; it appeared her husband suspected that a fellow peer of the realm was telling him a fish tale.

There was a pause, and her husband added, “There’s a wrinkle.”

Doyle raised her brows; if Acton thought there was a “wrinkle,” then Katy bar the door—although one would think a murder at a fancy estate would be an impressive wrinkle, in and of itself.

“I will fill you in on the way, but I’m afraid we must leave immediately.”

“Right, then; I’ll pack my bag.”

Whatever it was, it was too sensitive to speak of over the phone, and she hung up thoughtfully. “Reynolds, I’m afraid I have bad news. Acton’s been called away on a case, and you’ll be makin’ cocovan for your fine self, this Christmas.”

The servant accepted this blow to his plans with a bowed head, but almost immediately rebounded. “Perhaps I should offer my services at your church then, madam.”

Doyle blinked in surprise. “Faith; that’s a lovely idea, Reynolds.” Then, thinking about it, she frowned slightly. “Would you mind goin’ to Holy Trinity Church, instead? They’re more suited to the likes of you, anyway.” She paused. “I’d ask that you to do a little snoopin’ about, over there.”

The servant eyed her with a hint of well-bred skepticism. “Holy Trinity Church is involved in Lord Acton’s case, madam?”

Her scalp prickling, Doyle nodded slowly, not certain why she was so convinced of this. “That they are, my friend. Not a lot o’ good will toward men, at Holy Trinity.”

The servant bowed his head. “As you wish, madam.”

She slid him a sidelong glance. “Don’t let any of those blacklegs steal you away, Reynolds; remember that no one over there can teach you how to make a blood pudding.”

The servant closed his notebook with a decisive snap. “I will keep it to mind, madam.”

Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar.
She writes a historical fiction series set in the Regency period as well as a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard. A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, she lives in California and has four children.
Find Anne:


Anne kindly agreed to give away Murder in Thrall or Murder in Retribution ebook to one of the commenters. This giveaway is international, so answer the question to win:
Who is your favorite detective? (in  books/movies/TV)
(Check the links above to find out why I love this series so, so much)

My reviews of
Tainted Angel | Daughter of The God-King | Murder in Thrall | Murder in Retribution

Christmas With...Penny Reid!

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Breakfast at Tiffany's

Ever since she had been a child she had dreamed of leaving Greenstown, West Virginia and living a glamorous life in New York City. Because, as everyone knows, life in New York City is nothing if not glamorous.
And so, twelve days before Christmas 1962, Amanda smoothed the length of her black skirt, pulled at the cuffs of her ruby-red skit sweater through the sleeves of her winter coat, and—rolling her only bag of luggage after her—hooked her purse over her shoulder.
Amanda Tucker snuck out of her parents’ house, leaving her childhood, her boring life, and a note of:

Thanks but no thanks. I do not plan on marrying Bolt Shepard and having four litters of kids. You can kiss my ass.
P.S. Merry Christmas

Actually, she didn’t like to think of herself as sneaking out, but rather asserting her independence as a full-grown, fair minded, well functioning adult. Regardless, no one knew she was leaving and that suited her just fine. Therefore, boarding the bus to New York City at approximately twelve-thirty-eight in the A.M., she felt light as air.
As the bus rolled pass the city limits of Greenstown her stomach rumbled and growled, reminding her that in her haste and excitement she’d forgotten to bring a single bite for breakfast or as a snack.
Ah well.... She raised her eyebrows and sighed, I’ll just have my breakfast in New York.
And, without another thought to the matter, she leaned back in her seat and settled in for the long ride, ready for her life to begin in the town of her dreams.
Karl Sterling was having a shitty day, and it was only seven thirty in the morning.
First, his neighbor had been arrested—he always knew the Snodgrass’ hadn’t made their money in pig farm futures—at five in the morning. It seemed that the IRS didn’t like checks that bounced. Then, his housekeeper and maid were both on vacation. This left no one to make his breakfast but the gardener and the chauffeur; neither knew a toaster from a roasting pan, and it didn’t matter anyway because both were out with the flu.
Wistfully, he thought of Mrs. Mayfield’s eggs and toast as he pulled his lucky tie from the rotating closet rack and found the matching charcoal wool jacket. Grabbing a stainless steal mug he filled it with coffee from the percolator and left his house in South Hampton at precisely 5:30AM. With no driver, he opted to take his new model jaguar into town rather than driving the more sensible Cadillac sedan.
He made it halfway down his driveway when his tire, having hit a carelessly strewn garden rake, burst. This shook both him and the car, subsequently drenching both the interior and his favorite tie in Columbian roast. Gritting his teeth before cursing long and loud he attempted to mop up the brown stain from the carpet of his new toy before realizing the fruitlessness of his efforts.
In the end, he had called for a car service and changed, throwing his lucky tie in the bin Mrs. Westby would take to the cleaners on Wednesday. As the limo pulled from his driveway at six-forty-five in the A.M. his stomach rumbled uncomfortably, reminding him of his lack of both coffee and breakfast. Covering his mouth with his giant hand, the blue eyed, black haired business tycoon clenched his jaw, trying to decide whether he would fire his cook, his maid, his gardener, or his chauffeur first.
By the time the bus arrived in New York, Mandy was famished. A woman on the bus had a mini picnic around seven thirty and Mandy contemplated jumping her for the food. Instead, she looked on, almost drooling, and sat quietly in her seat. She passed the time imagining all the wonderful foods she would find in the city.
However, as she moved to collect her bag, pushing against the crowd that had gathered, she found it had been “misplaced.”
“Misplaced? Misplaced?!” She screeched at the bus attendant, “What exactly do you mean by misplaced?”
The man, whose name was Don according to his name tag and had a thick accent and a nasal twang all at once, huffed, “Listen, lady, I don’t know what happened to it, what can I tell you? Someone must have taken it by accident.”
Mandy clutched her purse to her stomach, she didn’t want anyone taking that by accident, and leaned forward, “What am I supposed to do? Everything I own was in there!”
Don shook his head, “We have form you can fill out but… other than that, I got nuthin for ya.” The man shrugged and Mandy wanted to punch him in the nose.
A temporary setback she told herself, you were going to need new clothes anyway. She bit her lip to keep from crying as she asked Don for a form and a pen.
Traffic was terrible. There was no way into the city it seemed, and Karl Sterling was late. So late in fact that his secretary had likely canceled all his morning meetings as he was uncertain when his albatross of a driver would finally make it to his building. He called it his building because it was his building.

When he spied first sight of it at 10:30 AM, he instructed the driver to pull to the side and let him out. Karl decided he would walk the last few blocks. His stomach grumbled again… perhaps he would grab something to eat on the way. As soon as he stepped out of the car, all at once thankful to be free of the limo with bad brass paneling, the traffic seemed to magically clear up.
And, just as the ugly black car turned the corner, Karl realized his briefcase, as well as all his money and cell phone, were still keeping company with the ugly brass paneling. A new and even more colorful string of curses spewed forth; he turned red as he contemplated chasing the car down, but thought better of it as he was only seven blocks from his building.
However, he soon came to regret that decision as he walked into the lobby of his building and was adamantly denied access to the elevators by a new security officer named Bob.
Grinding his teeth, his hands clenched white on the marble security counter, “Would you please just call my secretary? Mrs. Teffler will be more than happy to-”
“Listen, buddy, I don’t care if you are Rodgers and Bernstein, I’m not letting you use the phone and you are not going upstairs, capiche?”
Karl closed his eyes, trying to control his anger, “It’s Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Bob’s face turned red with anger and he stood suddenly from his gray, sensibly upholstered roll chair and wagged his finger at Karl, “You get out of here or I’ll make you get out.” His voice was low with threat.
Karl’s mouth drew into a tight line as he made a mental note: add security guard to list.
Now that she’d arrived, she couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of anything. Everyone walked so fast, it was like a race everywhere she went and she somehow got caught in the flow of traffic without meaning to.
Mandy allowed it to carry her along streets and avenues, walking somewhat despondently as she mourned the loss of her roll luggage.
She wondered if she had made a huge mistake. Bolt wasn’t so bad, even if his name was Bolt. What kind of person names their kid Bolt anyway? Dunderheads, that’s who!
It wasn’t until she found herself standing in front of Tiffany’s that she was shaken from her depression. She gasped, audibly gasped at the size of the store; diamonds winked at her from the window, glittering in the almost afternoon sun. There were so many different colored jewels, so many different shapes, a yellow diamond tiger, a green emerald dog, a purple amethyst grape vine.
Suddenly, she remembered her hunger and lack of breakfast and she laughed. Her first meal in New York would be spent standing outside Tiffany’s. She spun and twisted, searching for a store, a bakery, as street vendor, anything that sold food. Her eyes settled on a hotdog vendor and she charged forward, not letting herself mind the interesting odor as she approached.
She ordered a chili dog with extra cheese—no onions—and paid the man from her savings. Smiling, she took the stale bun gleefully, and turned, leaving the Russian vendor more than a little confused.
Raising it to her lips, she paused, and her eyes widened with surprise. Sitting not more that four feet from her was the most beautiful man she had ever seen with the angriest and most exasperated expression on his face eyeing her hotdog with the bluest and hungriest gaze imaginable. Forcing herself to swallow, her eyes moved from him to her hotdog then back again.
She bit her lip, then, boldly, crossed to him, moving the hot dog into her left hand as she offered her right.
“Hello. I’m Mandy Tucker.”
There he was, minding his own business, waiting for his vice president to pick him up when he saw her. Snow white skin, red lips, chocolate brown hair; she looked like she’d just stepped out of a magazine advertisement for Macy’s, and she was holding a chilidog with extra cheese, no onions—his favorite
The last thing he’d expected was for her to march over to him and introduce herself.
Even more surprising, when she spoke he was enveloped in a charming and unassuming—thick as sausage gravy—West Virginian accent. He didn’t know what to do, which irritated him. He always knew what to do.
So he took her hand in his and introduced himself, “Uh, Hi, I’m Karl.” He swallowed.
He dwarfed her. He was tall and she was short. She smiled up at him brightly; he felt the exasperated, tense expression leave his face. Suddenly, her hotdog was in his hand and she had turned to order a second one. He glanced from the hot dog to her, unwillingly admiring her shapely legs.
She walked back to him, still smiling. “I didn’t know how you like it. I hope this is okay. I don’t like onions, they make my nose itch,” she explained, indicating to the hotdog in his hand, the hotdog in hers and the vendor watching on with more than a little curiosity.
“Thank you.” Was all he said, completely dumbfounded and at a loss for words. He eyed her suspiciously, wondering if she were an escaped mental patient.
She nodded her head then turned her attention to Tiffany’s. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around. Merry Christmas!” She glanced back offering a shy smile over her shoulder as she began to walk away.
He watched her go three steps before his brain drop-kicked his mouth and feet, yelling at him to move. “Wait, wait!” he called after her, holding his hotdog to the side and reaching for her arm with his free hand.
She stopped and looked at him, puzzled, waiting for him to speak. Finally, for lack of any other words, he asked, “Where are you going?”
She shrugged her shoulders, licking her lips, “I was just going to have... um, breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
He glanced down at the hot dog in their hands, then back to her large dark sapphire eyes. For the first time that morning, he smiled, unable to help himself.
Offering his elbow to her, he dipped his head. “Mind if I join you?”

Penny Reid is a part time author of romantic fiction. When she is not immersed in penning smart romances she works full time in the biotech industry as a researcher. She's also a full time mom to two diminutive adults (boy-7 and girl-5), wife, daughter, knitter, crocheter, sewer, general crafter, and thought hijacker.
Find Penny:

Christmas With... Elizabeth Hunter!

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Every now and then, it’s nice to check in with old friends and see what they’re up to. Vampires in the Elemental World celebrate the holidays, just like we do! In Lost Letters and Christmas Lights, the new novella in ALL THE STARS LOOK DOWN (by Elizabeth Hunter and Grace Draven, now available in e-book at online retailers), Elemental Mysteries fans can check in with Giovanni and Beatrice as they follow a new mystery to spend Christmas in Rome. But I wanted to check in with Carwyn and Brigid from Building From Ashes, too!

I hope you enjoy this small scene I wrote for them. And thanks to Karina for hosting “Christmas With...” again this year.

 A Bloody Family Christmas

“I can’t do this.”
“You can do this.”
Brigid closed her eyes and took a deep breath, pushing back the tickle of fire that teased beneath her skin. It was a constant struggle. Some said it always would be. It was why fire vampires were given a wide berth. How they often ended up killing themselves. Her mate, having no concerns for his own safety—or exhibiting a startling lack of caution—stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders to calm her down.
“Carwyn, I’m just… I’m not prepared for this kind of thing.”
“Were you prepared for the drug dealers in Dublin?” he asked. “Or vicious Russian-Mexican mobsters? Human traffickers in Copenhagen?”
She blew out a long breath. “So you’re saying if I fear for my safety I’ll be able to burn someone? Excellent.”
“Brigid, it’s a family Christmas dinner. If Cathy’s managed this long without killing anyone, then you’re more than capable of doing it too.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked at him in the mirror. He was wearing relatively formal dress for him. Dark grey slacks and a button down shirt. No tie. No jacket. The shirt was open at the neck, and the dusting of auburn hair across his muscled chest tempted her to avoid Christmas dinner for entirely different reasons than the ones she’d been claiming.
Three years together and she was still ridiculously, madly in love with him. The best man she’d ever known. Her fiercest protector. Her devoted lover. And the head of one of the largest clans of earth vampires in the Western hemisphere.
“What do you want for Christmas?” she asked for the thousandth time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing. I get too many presents as it is.”
“You receive tribute. That’s not the same as a present. I have to get you something.”
“I just do.”
Brigid had made Deirdre, her own sire and Carwyn’s daughter, draw her a family tree once. Between Carwyn’s eleven children, their mates, and their direct offspring, he was head of a clan that numbered well over seventy-five mature immortals, all of whom owed him their loyalty. That didn’t count the generations that followed. Or their mates. Or their offspring.
Her husband was an earth vampire of tremendous influence. A former Catholic priest with close ties to the English, Scottish and Irish vampire hierarchies, the Vatican, and various immortal powers in the Americas. He commanded respect, despite the ridiculous uniform of Hawaiian shirts he wore to tweak his opponents. No matter what he wore, when Carwyn spoke, both mortals and immortals listened.
And Brigid was a newly-turned former drug addict from Dublin.
He turned her around and waited for her to meet his eyes. “What is this? Honestly, what’s going on, love?”
“Why couldn’t we just stay in Dublin like we usually do?”
“Because Guy was married this year and wanted to introduce his mate, Daniel is actually in the country, and Max and Cathy were able to drag Tavish to London.”
She grumbled, “If they could all come to London, I don’t see why they couldn’t come to Dublin.”
Carwyn laughed. “You’re so cross! It’s a good thing I find that wrinkle between your eyebrows adorable. And you know Deirdre tries not to antagonize Murphy. She’s is more powerful than your boss, and she has a larger clan. A gathering of all our lot in his territory would make Murphy rightfully nervous.”
“Makes me rightfully nervous, too.”
“Aha,” Carwyn said, wrapping an arm around her waist to pull her closer. “And now we get to it. What are you nervous about?”
“I haven’t met all of them yet. What if they don’t like me?”
“You’re lovely,” he said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. “Bright. Fierce. And you have excellent taste in husbands.”
Brigid smiled as Carwyn tickled the nape of her neck. She still wore her dark hair in a pixie cut which he took great pleasure in running his fingers through at every opportunity. He was a tactile man who often joked he had a thousand years of near-celibacy to make up for.
She didn’t mind. She drank in his affection like water.
Or even better. Blood.
Brigid laid her ear against his chest and listened to his heart thump once.
“I don’t feel very… capable of all the family business,” she said. “It was always Ioan and Deirdre’s house. A few people. My aunt. And they all left me alone if I wanted it.”
“Do you imagine Guy and Luc will be asking you to recite poetry? Perhaps Mina will be quizzing you on plant genetics.”
“I’d forgotten about that.” Guy’s new mate was an agronomist working in the Netherlands on new biofuel technologies. “That’s why Tavish is coming, isn’t it? Another scientist to talk to?”
His hand was running up and down her back. Soothing her. Distracting her.
“Yes, love?”
“Can I please burn someone if they annoy me too much? Maybe just Tavish or Cathy?”
He sighed. “Fine, but if you damage Gemma’s dining room table, you’re on your own.”

As luck would have it, Brigid was seated between Max, one of her favorite people in the world, and Terrance, Gemma’s husband, in the parlor before the formal meal. None of the vampires ate much, but enough humans were in attendance at Terry and Gemma’s luxurious Christmas party that they made a pretense of a formal meal. 
Mostly, vampires drank. Blood. Whiskey. Wine. Brigid even saw a few human partners offering a discreet wrist for their companions.
Carwyn bounced around the room, since everyone wanted to speak with him, but Brigid ended up discussing security arraignments with Terry for the summit he was planning the following Fall.
“If we’re to get a handle on this bloody elixir business—” Terrance shot a grin at Gemma’s annoyed expression “sorry, luv—we’ve got to coordinate between those of us who’ve been targeted by the bastard distributing this shite.”
“I know you and Gemma had the incident in Spain, but what others can you confirm?” Brigid asked.
“If we’re only talking about our side of the Atlantic, there’s been challenges in Spain, the one in Dublin against Murphy that I’m pretending I know nothing about, and a rumor of one in Sweden.”
“And you think this summit will actually work?” The air around Brigid grew heated with her excitement and Terry leaned back.
“If I can get your boss and his allies here, that would go a long way toward making it any kind of success. He’ll bring the Scandinavians. I can bring in the Spanish. Between me, Murphy, and Oleg in Russia—”
“You’ve convinced Oleg to attend?”
“I’m working on it. If we can pool at least some of our intelligence, I think we’d be able to find who’s moving this.”
Brigid shook her head. “You need Mary Hamilton in Belfast.”
“Can you—”
“She hates Murphy with a passion.” Brigid sighed and shook her head. Paused. “But maybe… Not me. A friend. She avoids politics, but I might be able to guilt her into helping.”
“Look at you,” Terry said with a grin. “Wielding guilt like the weapon it is. The Father is rubbing off on you.”
She elbowed Terry. “You’ve got to stop calling him that.”
“Ah, Brig, Carwyn is used to me being an ass.” Terry reached out and grabbed his mate’s hand as she tried to walk past. “That’s what Gemma loves about me, after all.”
“It most certainly is not,” Gemma said. “How are you, Brigid? Please tell me the two of you aren’t talking about work.”
Both Terry and Brigid sealed their mouths shut.
“Hopeless!” Gemma said. “I finally organize something for our entire family—”
“Deirdre isn’t here,” Brigid said.
“That’s because Gem didn’t want the parlor destroyed when she and Cathy tried to kill each other,” Terry said.
Brigid stifled a grin. “Neither is Gus, Isabel, or Clara.”
“I still say six of the eleven of us…” Gemma’s eyes clouded. “The ten of us, I mean. Six out of ten is a victory.”
Terry’s hand wrapped around Gemma’s waist, and she saw the man’s normally gruff expression fade. He kissed his wife’s shoulder.
“All right, Gem?”
“Fine.” Gemma reached over and grabbed Brigid’s hand. “It’s always harder at the holidays, isn’t it?”
A hundred years could pass, and Brigid would still miss Ioan, Carwyn’s oldest son, Gemma’s oldest sibling, and the one man Brigid had trusted as a child.
“Yes.” She nodded. “Holidays.”
“Why the long faces?” She felt Carwyn at her back. He leaned down, kissed her, and lifted her to her feet. 
Her husband looked down, tilting her chin up so their eyes met. He knew. He always knew. He could read her mood like it was written across her forehead. He saw, and his eyes grew sad. A wistful smile touched his lips.
“I love you,” Brigid blurted out. “I don’t tell you enough, but I do.”
He kissed her. Right in front of his clan, God, and everyone. A head-spinning kiss that went on far longer than was polite. She heard rude encouragements shouted in French between scattered laughter. 
Brigid’s skin heated, but Carwyn worked his magic through their shared blood, pressing his hand against the skin at the small of her back and drawing the heat from her body and into his. It was a powerful rush when they were intimate. A meeting more elemental than physical. A melding of energy. A meeting of minds. Her blood raced. Her heart pounded.
When Carwyn finally pulled away, he was grinning.
“I love you, too. Shall we head in to dinner?”

Brigid surveyed the table as the meal wound down. Gemma had surrendered the head of the table to Daniel, the youngest of Carwyn’s children, who was regaling his oldest sister and most of Terry’s senior staff with tales of wild mountaineering adventures. 
Cathy and Terry chatted—more than likely about work—to their right. 
Tavish and Mina had their heads together across from them, probably debating something scientific. 
Across the table from Carwyn and Brigid, the two French siblings debated something about a rugby tournament with Max.
And Brigid was happy to watch. Carwyn’s family appeared content to let her slip into the clan at her own pace. Maybe next year, she’d feel a bit more comfortable around them. Or maybe it would be five years. Ten.
It didn’t matter, did it? She had time. And they gave her the kindness of space.
“Wondering how you became part of the mad, bloodsucking Brady Bunch?” Carwyn asked, sliding into the chair next to her.
“Oh no. I know exactly how I got here. Hormones and a weakness for red-headed men.”
Carwyn broke into a laugh and Brigid did an internal dance. Her husband was always the one making others laugh. She loved it when she could be the one to amuse him. Carwyn rested his chin on her shoulder and glanced around the room.
“It’s a nice family, isn’t it, love?”
She reached up to brush a hand over his smooth jaw. He’d shaved for the holidays, and she missed his scruff.
“It’s a marvelous family. Amazing.”
“Not a bad thing to spend a millennium building, is it?”
She turned to him. “Far better than a tower or monument. You built love. Respect. Safety.”
“You make me sound like a superhero,” he said. “I’m not. Just a man. I make more than my share of mistakes.”
“And your willingness to admit that is why they love you,” she said. “And just one of the reasons I do.”
She felt a satisfied rumble in his chest as he pulled her closer. His left hand threaded through hers, the cool of his gold wedding band clicking against the one she wore for him. They were simple. No diamonds or embellishments. Just an inscription on the inside: Love is as strong as fire.
The fire still burned beneath her skin. It was a nightly challenge. But one Brigid knew she would never face alone.
“You know, I was wrong,” he said. 
“I am a superhero.”
She stifled a smile. “Wearing a bright green hula-printed cape.”
Carwyn let our a small gasp. 
“I know what I want for Christmas!”
Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Hunter

ELIZABETH HUNTER is a contemporary fantasy, paranormal romance, and contemporary romance author. She is a graduate of the University of Houston Honors College and a former English teacher. She once substitute taught a kindergarten class, but decided that middle school was far less frightening. Thankfully, people now pay her to write books and eighth-graders everywhere rejoice.
Find Elizabeth

Christmas With...Grace Draven!

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When Karina first asked me if I’d like to participate in her Christmas-themed blog event, I thought I’d revisit a winter festival I’d written about in my book ENTREAT ME.  Modranicht was an Anglo-Saxon celebration that predated the arrival of Christianity.  It venerated goddesses and paid homage to mothers—basically a Mother’s Day that took place in winter.  I loved writing about it when I worked on ENTREAT ME so considered revisiting that holiday with those characters in their future.  I changed my mind once I completed SUNDAY’S CHILD.  That is a true Christmas-themed story with Saint Nicholas playing the role of international gift giver but accompanied by a troublesome, exiled elf who is neither cute nor diminutive and very much in love with a human woman who hasn’t believed in jolly Saint Nick for a long time. 

During my research for both books, I quickly realized that history is fat with accounts of winter festivals grounded in every recorded religion and culture.  It seems humans like to party during the cold, dark months.  Instead of revisiting festivals I’d already researched, I went with a new one and revisited old characters close to my heart.  In THE LIGHT WITHIN the mage Silhara of Neith and his wife Martise attend a winter festival in the Dramorin mountains.  I’ve loosely based the festival off of an ancient Zoroastrian holy day that is still observed called Sadeh.  Sadeh is celebrated during mid winter.  It made for fascinating reading, and I encourage anyone curious to learn more to check out Zoroastrian festivals, fire temples, Chak Chak and Sadeh.

We celebrate Christmas in my household, so I wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  For those who celebrate other holidays during this time of year, I wish you a very safe and Happy Holiday season.
A Winter’s Tale in the World of Master of Crows
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
* * *
Silhara guided Gnat along the path that wound high into the Dramorins, one hand on the reins, the other on Martise’s back as she rode reverse in the saddle, huddled against him for warmth. A line of shaggy, sure-footed Kurman ponies clopped ahead of them and behind them, their riders bright splashes of color in the snowy terrain.
The great firs hemming either side of the pass towered above them like dark sentinels, their branches bowed in shrouds of snow. They creaked and swayed in the wind that sent flurries spinning and dancing through the air before landing on horses and riders. The trees blocked the worst of the wind, but a few stray gusts broke through the shield of foliage and whistled down the pass, straight as an arrow and just as piercing.
Martise lifted her head from the shelter offered by Silhara’s heavy winter cloak and his embrace. “I thought the plains winds were harsh. These cut like knives.” She formed the words around chattering teeth. The tip of her nose was bright red, and she shivered hard in his arms.
Silhara braced for the inevitable cold shock of her gloved hands as they skittered up his sides to burrow under his arms. He joined her in the shivering. “Those hands of yours are icier than a wraith’s touch.”
“That’s because I’m nearly frozen to death.” She abandoned his underarms to map paths down his sides towards his breeches lacings.
He seized one of her wrists. “Don’t even consider it,” he warned. “I don’t want to be pissing ice chips later.” The thought of his wife’s cold fingers wrapping around his genitals for warmth made his bollocks draw up tight.
Martise tugged, still trying to tuck her hands into his breeches. “I can’t get my fingers warm.”
Silhara lifted her captured hand to his mouth, tugged aside the glove and blew into the space between palm and covering. Martise slumped in his arms and moaned her approval. He did the same for her other hand before nestling them back under his arms and giving her a stern warning not to go anywhere near his groin.
Swathed in layers of wool, fur and a hooded cloak, Martise hid her face in Silhara’s chest and laughed. The sound sent pleasant vibrations through his torso. “Better?” he asked.
“Much. You have a soft heart.”
He frowned. “No need to be insulting.” He felt her laughter once more, followed by a muffled question. “What did you say?”
She raised her head and frowned back at him. A tiny snowflake blew into her eyelashes, and she blinked it away. “How much farther to the avastra?”
He looked beyond her shoulder to the head of the line as it wound through a col between two of the Dramorin peaks. “Not far. There’s a wind gap coming up that opens onto a ruin and the fire temple itself. You’ll know we’re there when you hear the gate bell ring.”
Every year the nine principal tribes that made up the loosely knitted Kurman confederation gathered for three days to honor their god Damaza, Light of the Spirit in a ritual known as Sehad. For those three days, the tribes put aside their clan squabbles and territorial disputes and celebrated the winter fire ritual together in relatively peaceful camaraderie. If one didn’t count the occasional drunken brawl or impromptu wrestling challenges in the snow.
Silhara had attended five sehads since he united with his father’s people and had been eager to bring Martise to one so she might witness the lighting of the great bonfire and join him in the festivities afterwards. They had much to celebrate, he and his wife. She was a free woman, complete and independent in body and soul. Silhara couldn’t think of a more befitting way to recognize her emancipation than to attend a ritual for a god known as Light of the Spirit.
He heard the first peal of the gate bell before he saw the wind gap. He steered Gnat off the main path and brought him to a halt. The big draught horse snorted his disapproval and tossed his head, eager to rejoin the much smaller ponies in their procession toward the avastra.
“Patience, you overgrown dog.” Silhara patted him on the neck. “This will take only a moment.”
Martise emerged from her woolen cocoon. “What are you doing?”
Silhara untangled her from around him and slid out of the saddle. He motioned to her to dismount. “Turning you around. We’re about to enter the wind gap. It opens to the avastra; you don’t want to miss that first sight.”
They were remounted and back in the procession in moments, Martise still in front of Silhara in the saddle but facing forward so she might have a clear view of her surroundings. They passed through a narrow wind gap carved out of the mountain by an ancient stream that left its memory in the rock’s rippled face. Snow flurries faded to the occasional lazy drift of flakes that found their way into the opening. The peal of the bell grew louder as they rode further into the gap.
The gap widened and sheared away, opening onto a semicircular space, protected from the wind on all sides by sheer rock walls but open to the sky. A bell mounted on an iron pole driven into the ground hung at the edge of the wind gap. A young boy stood next to it with a clapper. Each time a rider emerged from the gap, he’d strike the bell, announcing the arrival of another sehad participant.
Silhara’s mouth curved up into a satisfied smile at Martise’s gasp when they entered the avastra’s open space. He had experienced the same wonder when he first saw it years earlier. Like the dry stream that had cleaved both path and memory into the mountain, those who lived here long ago had left their mark.
A ruin as old as Neith, if not older, the only things remaining were those bits of architecture carved directly into the mountain. The stream was the water source, the gap an easily defended access point. What wooden buildings might have existed had rotted away, leaving only dust. The Kurmans had appropriated the ruin as their fire temple generations before Silhara was born and left clues of their occupation in the scorch patterns that blacked the hard packed earth from the annual sehad bonfires.
The avastra teemed with people—Kurmans of all nine tribes in their colorful garb. New arrivals called out to friends and relatives. Embraces were exchanged, cups of arkii passed around, invitations extended to share the smaller camp fires built away from the colossal heap of wood and silver thorn kindling set in the center of the avastra. Nine spirit torches, each representing a tribe, ringed the avastra’s inner circle, waiting to be lit with the bonfire’s sacred flame and carried home to share amongst the tribe’s hearth fires. Silhara’s stomach rumbled at the scents steaming from the various cooking pots tended by the women, and the alluring perfume of matal tobacco drifting from long-stemmed pipes teased his nostrils.
Martise ignored all of it. She squirmed in the saddle, excitement obvious in her voice when she half turned to him. “Guide Gnat to that column.” She pointed to one of the pillars hewn out of the rock. Tendrils of dead silver thorn covered most of its face, obscuring the symbols carved from its capital to its base.
Silhara steered Gnat to where she pointed. Martise scraped away the brittle vines with a gloved hand and leaned out of the saddle for a closer look. Her lips moved silently as she deciphered the symbols.
“What do they say?” Silhara was virtually unequaled in his ability to invoke and wield magic, but he was no translator. Such expertise fell to his wife whose gift for languages never failed to amaze him.
His eyebrows shot up when Martise held up a finger in silent command to wait. She climbed off Gnat to crouch at the column’s base and read the remaining symbols. She glanced up at Silhara, her copper colored eyes glinting in the winter half light. “This is what remains of the fortress known as High Salure, an outpost of the Beladine kingdom.”
Silhara glanced at his surroundings. His first impression of the avastra was that it had been a fortress of some type. The ancient kingdom of Belawat had vanished a long time ago, but Conclave kept records of its existence, recorded by the priests during Conclave’s inaugural days. Belawat had lain on the other side of the Dramorins. This far outpost must have guarded an important border, overseen by a border warden. Destroyed, abandoned or both, it now served as a makeshift temple for the nomadic Kurman who gathered once a year to honor Damaza with fire.

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