Excerpt and Sweepstakes: The Impaler’s Wife by Autumn Bardot

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Part of a Fearless Women in History series
Historical fiction, Historical Romance, Gothic Romance
Published Date: April 3, 2019
The year is 1464 and young King Matthias controls Hungary, his family, and the fate of the world’s most notorious political prisoner, Prince Vlad Dracula. 
 Ilona Szilágy, the king’s cousin, is young and ambitious. Dracula is determined to marry into the Hunyadi family. It is love at first sight…but the king has other plans. The Impaler Prince, however, never takes no for an answer.
This begins Ilona’s journey into the treacherous world of court intrigues, family betrayals, and her husband’s dark desires. Eager to become Vlad’s trusted confidant, Ilona soon discovers that marriage to man tortured by his past comes with a price.
Woven throughout is a peek into the life and times of one of the world’s most enigmatic and maligned rulers…the man before the legend.
With Bardot’s decadent period detail and a cast of gritty evocative characters, The Impaler’s Wife offers a fierce yet sensuous glimpse into the violent 15th century.

Excerpt from The Impaler’s Wife:

Prince Vlad rests his hand on the small of my back. “Come, Lady Ilona, look at the faces of anarchy and villainy, and see how much they resemble your friends and family.”

“I will not.” I back away from the entrance where moans rise from the bowels of the labyrinth like a demon’s song.

“The choice is yours, of course.” His tone is low and gentle, but in the lamplight his stare is wolf like.

I shift from foot to foot, look away, only to glance back. Does he hear my heart knocking against my breast?  Can he smell my fear as it beads wet on my neck? Do I want to rise to this challenge? Or am I a fool for allowing him to bait me?

My fingers tighten around the lamp’s clay handle. “I will humor you, my lord, but only because Father taught me courage and graciousness.”

“Mihály taught you well.” He holds out his hand. “My lady.”

The lamp divides the darkness like a saber, each foot forward lighting our descent into hell. Ghostly groans from below seep through the rock. I sink into Vlad’s fur-lined coat as though their suffering will soak into my soul.

Vlad pauses before descending the narrow rock steps leading into the labyrinth’s deepest level. “Are you certain?” His eyes glint with challenge. “A weak constitution is nothing to be ashamed of.”

I lift my chin and glare with pretended insult. “I am the daughter of Michael Szilágyi and Margit Báthory. Iron courage flows in my blood.” I push back my cuff and show him the blue-forked veins in my wrist. “I am as brave as Hadak Ura, our ancient pagan warlord.”

“I believe you, my lady. I will not doubt again.”

The clanking chains and eerie moans get louder with each step down, the noises merging into a demonic choir like that of Ördög’s requiem to the Underworld. My legs shake, my neck wet with icy prickles, and my skin tightens around my chest.

I lift the lamp into hell.

The circle of light shines upon a pockmarked man stretching his arm between the bars, his fingers curled like claws. “Bless me, good sister.”

In the cell next to him, a naked wretch spits onto the ground. “Menj a fenébe!”

“I am innocent!” A third prisoner grabs the bars and presses his wild-bearded face against the iron. “Tell His Highness there is a Turkish spy in his court. He is in danger! You must warn him!”

My head swivels toward Prince Vlad.

“There are always spies,” Vlad whispers.

I walk with measured pace and let the lantern reveal each doomed prisoner. Most stare, empty-eyed; the whips, chains, skin shredders, bone crushers, and strappado take away all hope and spirit. Others shout obscenities. One man kneels, hands in prayer, and mutters the Hail Mary.

The weight of their misery crashes down, squeezes my heart, and crushes my breath. This place must be worse than hell’s torments because these wretches yet live, have all their faculties! No one deserves this! It is inhumane! Sadistic and depraved!

My breath comes in shreds and clumps. I cover my nose with Prince Vlad’s cape, the stench of rotting flesh enfolding me in its putrid embrace. My pace quickens. It is time to end this test of my courage.

“You!” A milky-eyed wretch points to Prince Vlad and begins chanting in a foreign tongue.

Prince Vlad guides me away from the cells. “You have thrice over proven your courage tonight.”

“What language was that man speaking?”

“He recites from the Corpus Hermeticum.” Dracula takes the lantern and illuminates the stairwell. “It’s a pagan book of alchemy, astronomy, and metaphysics.”

“It sounded like he cursed us.”

“Pay no attention to a madman’s rants. That particular book is nothing but Egyptian and Greek nonsense.”

I tread upwards, evil’s chill clinging to my limbs. At the top, I try to purge the dungeon’s misery, malice, and madness with a long exhalation. Yet the horror sticks like nettles in my soul.

“This way.” I move past the dark tunnel and enter the lighted one, relieved to put space and distance between the prisoners and me.

The tunnel ends at a large grotto where Prince Vlad pauses to light the ring of torches affixed to the walls. I wait on a stone bench near the baptismal fount, sighing with relief as the golden glow of the church-like arches infuses peace into my troubled soul.

Prince Vlad sits beside me. “We go from hell to heaven.”

I tuck a stray lock behind my ear. “This was Father’s favorite grotto. God’s Buried Cathedral, he called it. His second favorite has a Titan-sized head emerging from the ground—like a god got stuck in molten rock. I was only in that grotto once. It reminded me of an insect trapped in tree sap that ages to amber—the insect forever entombed—never aging, almost alive in its resin grave.”

“Do you find that horrific or beautiful?” His eyes search mine.

“Both I suppose.” My shoulders move into my sigh. “Caves are dreary places.”

“I rather enjoy them. Tunnels have saved my life several times.” Dracula stands. “I think we are both ready for fresh air.” He offers his hand, its warmth a familiar comfort.

Together we walk through the tunnel lit by small lanterns that flicker like fireflies all the way to the exit.

Prince Vlad gives the stubborn iron-crossed door a hard yank and it groans open. Outside, a sapphire dawn drapes over Buda.

“On no.” My hands fly to my face. “It’s so late it’s early.” Were we in the tunnels that long? If my aunts discover I never returned to my room…I spin about, my voice edged with panic. “I have to go back. Now.”

Vlad’s brows crease with concern. He tugs a handkerchief from his robe and touches it to my lips as though dabbing at a smudge. “There’s something I must do first.” He lays the linen over my lips and sets his mouth on mine.

Even through the thin fabric, his lips sear my own. I part my lips, feel the linen moisten with the breath of our lust. I collapse into him, my body sizzling with desire. I am about to rip away the fabric and taste his lips when he breaks the kiss.

Vlad Dracula steps back, the handkerchief between thumb and forefinger. “If you marry Luigi della Scala you will still be chaste.” He drags the handkerchief across his mouth. “I will always have this.”

Chaste? Prince Vlad just violated my heart and corrupted my flesh!

Back in my chambers, I touch my lips that still burn with the memory of our kiss—my first kiss—and groan. Vlad Dracula used my virtue, conceit, and fears to study the labyrinth’s secrets. He took advantage of my desire for romantic adventure to learn the escape route.

 

About the Author

Autumn Bardot writes smart erotica and historical fiction about sassy women, spicy sex, and daring passions!   Her erotica includes Legends of Lust, ( Cleis Press )and Confessions Of A Sheba Queen ( Cleis Jan 2020).  Autumn has a BA in English literature and a MaEd in curriculum and instruction. She’s been teaching writing and literary analysis for fourteen years. Autumn lives in Southern California with her hubby, rescue pooch, and ever-increasing family.  Her favorite things include salty French fries, coffee, swimming, and a great book.

 

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Release Day Review: The Rose (Book #2: The Red Series) by Tiffany Reisz

38827724On the day of Lia’s university graduation party, her parents—wealthy art collectors with friends in high places—gift her a beautiful wine cup, a rare artifact decorated with roses. It’s a stunning gift, and one that August Bowman, a friend of her parents and a guest at Lia’s party, also has his eye on. The cup, August tells her, is known as the Rose kylix, and it’s no ordinary cup. It was used in the temple ceremonies of Eros, Greek god of erotic love, and has the power to bring the most intimate sexual fantasies to life.

But Lia is skeptical of August’s claims of the cup’s mythology and magic—after all, he’s a collector himself, and she suspects he just wants to get his hands on this impressive piece of art. So he dares her to try it for herself, and when Lia drinks from the Rose kylix she is suddenly immersed in an erotic myth so vivid it seems real—as though she’s living out the most sensual fantasy with August by her side…

Realizing the true power of this ancient and dangerous relic, Lia is even more wary of giving it up, though August insists it is only safe with him. He’s willing to pay the full value of the cup, but Lia has another type of trade in mind. One that finds them more tangled up in each other—and in fantasy—than either was prepared for.

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: NetGalley and MIRA          Rating: 4/5 stars

One of the things I have long admired about Tiffany Reisz and her writing is her ability to weave an actual story among so many scorching naughty bits scenes.  Without doubt, that skill shines through once again in the second installment of The Red series, The Rose.

Lia’s parents are tremendously and ridiculously proud of her!  To that end, they have not only thrown her an elaborate graduation party, but also gifted her with a priceless treasure, the Rose kylix.  Given her interest in Greek mythology, the kylix is really the perfect gift for Lia.  What she didn’t expect, the additional “gift” that seems to have come with the kylix, the most handsome and seriously interested in her kylix, August Bowman.  August is charming, desirable, intelligent, stunningly intuitive, and determined to convince Lia of the true nature of the gift she has been given.

Thanks to a terrible encounter as a teenager, Lia is often skeptical of men and their motives, but August Bowman is a hard man to resist.  With his incredibly in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology and his insights about the kylix, Lia decides to take a chance on August.  The story he tells her about the kylix is unbelievable until, over a series of sex-fueled nights/encounters he proves to Lia just how powerful the treasure truly is.  Aside from the amazing sex and waltzes through “history,” Lia finds herself falling for August and wondering if he really can heal her and help her overcome her great misgivings about men and relationships. 

Of course, there are many obstacles separating Lia and August from their HEA.  The obstacles come from sources known and others which are completely inconceivable to the mortal mind.  Once the force of her true feelings for August come crashing down on her, Lia is prepared for battle.  She will try and wrap her head around the inconceivable bits, battle the known head on, and do her level best to preserve what she has only just begun to build with August. 

The Bottom Line: As always, once I started The Rose, I got sucked into the rabbit hole that is a Tiffany Reisz book and didn’t come out until the end.  Hands down, I was totally smitten with August from the very beginning and found him carrying the story for me in so many ways.  His guidance through the world of the Greeks, his confidence in his skills and abilities, and his care of and for Lia made him a stand out character for me.  As the story and August’s identity unfold, he becomes even more interesting and intriguing.  Additionally, the excellent ending with its lovely twists and turns and truly excellent guest appearances were perfectly appropriate for the rest of the story.  Last, but certainly not least (and circling back around to the beginning) I completely appreciated the real story that happened in and around all the naughty bits.  Gratuitous sex really pisses me off and Tiffany Reisz always makes sure the story is real, the characters are solid, and the sex is a part of the story rather than being the story.  In all, yet another fine offering.

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Excerpt and Sweepstakes: Love Again by L.P. Dover


Sometimes all you need is a second chance … 
 
Aubrey Reynolds is a small-town girl who’s made it big. 
 
A successful Hollywood director, Aubrey doesn’t have time to linger on what could have been.
 
But when a routine blood test comes back with a false positive, she decides to take some time off to do the things she’s always wanted to do: taste the famous chocolate chip cookies at the Minnesota State Fair, hike the Grand Teton National Park, scuba dive in the Caribbean. 
 
But after Aubrey admits to herself what she’s really missing, she heads back home to Dusty Valley, Oklahoma . . . and the man she left behind.
 
Cole Haywood is a small-town fireman and that’s just fine with him. 
 
Sure, when the love of his life left their hometown to chase her dreams he was heartbroken and—he’ll admit—damn mad.
 
But Cole would have never forgiven himself if he had held Aubrey back from success. 
 
So the last thing he expects after all these years is to walk into his favorite bar one night and find the girl he’s always loved—there—looking for him. 
 
Maybe now’s the time to make his dreams come true.
We pulled up to Tornado Alley bar, and Cole’s truck was there along with a dozen others. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked, glancing around at all the cars. “There’s a lot of people here.”

Bennett parked his truck and pulled out the key. “Yep. A lot of our high school buddies will be in there. They’ll be excited to see the famous movie director, Aubrey Reynolds.” He winked, and it gave me hope. If I could get him on my side, I had to believe I could convince Cole too. He reached over and opened my door. “If you don’t want to go in there with everyone, I’ll bring him out.”

Hands shaking, I nodded as my whole body started to tremble with nerves. “That sounds better. I don’t want to go in there just yet.”

Bennett sighed. “All right. I’ll bring him out.”

He got out of the truck and disappeared inside. Slowly, I exited the truck and walked toward the steps. My legs felt so heavy I doubted I could even climb up them. This was it. It was the moment I’d been dreading, yet looking forward to. I’d dreamed about the time I’d see Cole again, face to face. I already knew it wouldn’t be an easy meeting, especially considering how Bennett’s first encounter with me was.

Everything moved in slow motion as I waited for Cole to come outside. I stood at the bottom of the steps, feeling more vulnerable with each passing second. What if he saw me and then turned right back around? Getting him to hear me out wasn’t going to be easy.

“Oh my God, I can’t do this.” Heart racing out of control, I dashed to the side of the building. I peeked my head around the corner just as the door opened and Cole stepped out. I flattened myself against the wall so he couldn’t see me, and I was almost certain he’d hear me hyperventilating.

“What exactly did you want me to see?” Cole asked, laughing at Bennett. It was clear he’d had a couple of drinks already. “There’s nothing out here.” Hearing his voice brought up all sorts of emotions inside me. I’d missed him so much.

Bennett huffed, most likely thinking I ran off. “Never mind, brother. My mistake.”

Cole chuckled. “Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

I jumped out from beside the building, and Bennett stopped. “Wait,” I called out. Cole had his back to me, but he froze and turned around slowly. The second our eyes locked, nothing else existed. It was what I’d secretly hoped for. He might hate me, but there was no denying the bond we had. I felt the spark between us even now.

 

 
“Another amazing book… I truly loved this book from start to finish. ALL. THE. FEELS!! ~ Nancy Metsch
 
 
“This is simply a beautifully written, wonderful, heartwarming second chance love story that really made me FEEL. ~Marybeth

 

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author L. P. Dover is a southern belle living in North Carolina with her husband and two beautiful girls. Before she began her literary journey she worked in periodontics, enjoying the wonderment of dental surgeries.
 
She loves to write, but she also loves to play golf, go on mountain hikes, and has a passion for singing. Her youngest daughter, who she’s also written a children’s book with, expects a concert each and every night before bedtime, usually Christmas carols.
 
Dover has written countless novels in several different genres, including a children’s book with her youngest daughter, but her favorite to write is romantic suspense. However, she has found a new passion in romantic comedy, especially involving sexy golfers. Who knew the sport could be so dirty and fun to write about.
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Review: Dear Dwayne, With Love by Eliza Gordon

35564758Wannabe actress Dani Steele’s résumé resembles a cautionary tale on how not to be famous. She’s pushing thirty and stuck in a dead-end insurance job, and her relationship status is holding at uncommitted. With unbearably perfect sisters and a mother who won’t let her forget it, Dani has two go-tos for consolation: maple scones and a blog in which she pours her heart out to her celebrity idol. He’s the man her father never was, no boyfriend will ever be—and not so impossible a dream as one might think. When Dani learns that he’s planning a fund-raising event where the winning amateur athlete gets a walk-on in his new film, she decides to trade pastries and self-doubt for running shoes and a sexy British trainer with adorable knees.

But when Dani’s plot takes an unexpected twist, she realizes that her happy ending might have to be improvised—and that proving herself to her idol isn’t half as important as proving something to herself.

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: Purchase          Rating: 5/5 stars

Very late one night last week I decided I needed a break from all the heavy, emotional roller coaster books I had been reading.  I landed on Eliza Gordon’s Dear Dwayne, With Love and was thoroughly entertained from start to finish!  In fact, it was exactly what I was looking for and I’m sort of mad at myself for not reading this little gem far sooner than I did ☹

In a nutshell, Dani Steele is not at all satisfied with her life.  Her two sisters are ridiculously successful, her mother is a complete nutter, her boyfriend is just a step above a cave man, her job pays the bills and that’s about it, and her acting career is going nowhere.  Though Dani appears happy on the surface, she pours out her true feelings into her journal/diary which she has, since the age of 12 written in the form of letters to her hero, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  Through thick and thin, The Rock has been there for Dani, “hearing” all her woes, “listening” to all her hope and dreams, and “sympathizing with” her issues and feelings about the people and events in her life.   

While Dani accepts she will only ever admire The Rock from afar, Fate has other plans for her life and with the proper alignment of the stars, Dani comes across an opportunity that would allow her to meet her hero.  All she must do is compete in an obstacle course competition and win her age group!  Um, what??  Excuse me??  Yeah, Dani has never run a day in her life so winning this thing is going to take some serious commitment and the help of one miraculously beautiful trainer, Marco.  With absolutely no idea what she’s really getting herself into, Dani signs up for the event, contracts with Marco for personal training, and launches herself into a series of weeks and months that will test her both physically and emotionally.

Though Marco is miraculously beautiful, he is also a slave driver when it comes to fitness.  In addition to the physical workouts, Marco also instructs Dani to radically alter her eating habits.  What. The. Actual. Hell.  No more fun pastries with her work friends, no more pizza, no more fast food, just smoothies and vegetables, and smoothies, and infused water, and smoothies!!  The struggle is real and while Dani has chosen not to share her fitness journey with her friends, she has chosen to share it, and all the other annoyances in her life with The Rock in her diary, a tome she never, ever, in the history ever expected anyone other than herself to read.

Enter stage left, the hacker with a mean streak . . . . .

In the blink of an eye, all Dani’s most intimate thoughts, feelings, and raw emotions are made public and everyone in her life, everyone, is made privy to her diary!  To make matters worse, every time someone opens the email and link, it is sent to everyone in their contact list.  Yeah, Dani’s life has gone viral and pretty much everyone, with no middle ground either loves or hates her.  Without doubt, everyone she is closest to falls firmly into the “hates her” category.  With no friends or family to turn to, Dani commits herself even more firmly to her fitness goals and earning the right to meet The Rock, the only person on earth who will sympathize with her plight 😊

The Bottom Line: I should have known, given how much I enjoyed Must Love Otters, that I would love this book too!  My favorite part of this book, without doubt is all the conversation.  I am such a fan of dialogue and this book is filled with witty, sarcastic, funny dialogue that comes in all shapes and sizes.  For example, Dani not only communicates with others in real life, but also has her written diary which is written in a letter format, and her inner monologue which is often a two-sided conversation with The Rock.  All the conversation not only moves the book along but reveals what we are really meant to see, learn, and know, that is, how Dani evolves as a human and how she navigates all the events, both good and bad, that happen in her life.  Though this is a very funny read, it is also the story of a human being who is essentially a good person, but, like all human beings, still has things to learn in this life. 

P.S. I also bought the audio version of this book and sincerely hope the real voice given to Dani is just as good as the voice she spoke with in my head 😊

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Spotlight: Going Deep by Nikki Ash

Title: Going Deep
Author: Nikki Ash 
Genre: Enemies to Lovers Romance
Release Date: April 6, 2019

Going deep: In football it means running down the field for a long pass. You’re serious. Committed. Unstoppable. As a wide receiver, it’s a term I’m all too familiar with. It’s who I am, at least when it comes to my career.
For the past decade, football has been the only thing I’ve allowed myself to commit to. That is until a beautiful, blue-eyed temptress steps into my limo to escort me to a charity function.
She’s strong, independent, and quick witted. Everything I want in a woman. There’s just one problem. She’s not mine for the taking. But that’s not going to stop me from winning her heart.
I’m in deep with this woman. I’m running down the field with my arms and heart open, ready for the catch. Now all I need is for her to throw the ball.

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Excerpt: Make Him Howl (Book #3: Shift Series) by Zoe Ashwood

Title: Make Him Howl
Series: Shift Book #3
Author: Zoe Ashwood
Genre: Shapeshifter Romance
Release Date: April 4, 2019
Cover Design: Natasha Snow Designs
Funny how a wolf can survive after losing half his soul. Twice.
Gabriel is living in a nightmare. His sloppy mistake allowed rogue shifters to kidnap Parker, his best friend and partner. Unwilling to rest and plagued with memories of his twin brother who’d died in his arms, he pushes himself to the limits of endurance in his hunt to retrieve Parker.
Until the day she saves herself.
Parker thought that being secretly in love with her partner was the low point of her career. She was wrong. Forced to compete in shapeshifter cage fights, she commits an unspeakable act she can never undo. With her mind and body too bruised to resume her former job, she’s fighting to keep sane. Keeping away from overprotective Gabriel is even harder.
But their enemies are closing in, hurting shifters and humans alike. With so much to lose, their only solution will be to fight together, even if this brings up truths they’re not ready to face.

Excerpt from Make Him Howl:

Chapter One: Gabriel
A cold January wind whipped a gust of snowflakes around the corner of the rusty barn. Gabriel gripped his gun tighter and jerked his chin at Lucas Thibault, the universal signal for ‘I’ve got you covered.’ The young soldier raised his weapon and stepped around the pile of corrugated iron, scanning the dark yard for potential Guard activity.
This was the fourth location they’d raided that week. Their fourth attempt to find Gabriel’s missing partner. Their fourth failure. Parker Bourne had been missing for two weeks, and Gabriel was starting to lose hope that they’d find her in one piece. Or that they’d find her at all.
The thought hollowed his insides, and he barely kept down the bile rising in his throat.
“Clear,” Lucas said under his breath, but Gabriel’s sensitive ears picked up the sound easily, even over the whistling wind.
They approached the door but didn’t enter, waiting for Kai’s signal. The general had two more teams doing a perimeter search, so not one Guard member would escape this raid. They needed all the information they could get. Letting someone go by mistake was not an option.
“Breach now.” Kai’s voice crackled through the ear pieces.
Gabriel winced at the sound but grabbed the edge of the old sliding doors and shoved them wide while Lucas burst into the barn, ready to put a tranquilizer dart into whomever was hiding inside.
The vast, disused barn was completely abandoned, but the smell of urine, blood, and shifter sweat had Gabriel gagging and breathing through his mouth.
“Holy shit.” Lucas kicked over a wooden crate to check that it was empty. “This place stinks.”
From the other side of the barn, Kai and Nik approached, the general and the former Guard lieutenant an incongruous pair. Their partnership just showed how much this hidden war was affecting everyone’s lives. Enemies became friends became enemies—they’d been betrayed by allies and learned to forgive their opponents.
Though right now, Gabriel wanted to shake Nik, press him for more information. Surely he had at least some idea where Reid Maxwell was taking his cage fighting ring?
“All clear.” Kai’s announcement was followed by a series of groans from the soldiers outside, then both team leaders dispatched sentries to form a perimeter.
Finally, the forensic unit was allowed inside, and with them, Claire Thibault, Nik’s mate and future Councilwoman. And Parker’s best friend. She’d insisted on coming along, hoping that they’d find Parker, or at least some clue of her, though they hadn’t had luck before.
Still, Gabriel had to admire her tenacity. In fact, everyone at SANA was working double time to find clues about Maxwell’s maneuvers. Were they also having trouble sleeping? Did they wake up from nightmares in which Parker was being dragged into Maxwell’s car, limp and unconscious?
No, that was likely only him. Because he’d caused Parker’s abduction and—
“Sir, you should come look at this.” A middle-aged woman, a polecat shifter by her scent, was kneeling in the dirt.
Gabriel was the first to arrive at her side. She was pointing at the ground, where a trap door was visible beneath a layer of dirty sawdust and sand.
“Weapons,” Kai barked, and their team all drew their guns, aiming them at the hatch.
“What do you think is in there?” Lucas murmured. The bear still hadn’t learned to keep his mouth shut in dangerous situations—a fact that bothered Gabriel more than he cared to admit. Parker had always known when silence was called for. As partners, they’d developed a sort of non-verbal language that served them perfectly in cases like this.
But now Kai had put Lucas as Gabriel’s temporary partner, and Gabriel refused to teach the youngster that same code. He wanted Parker back, not some rookie who insisted on bringing homemade snacks to a stakeout.
“It could be a tornado shelter,” offered Nik.
“Or the entrance to a secret prohibition vault,” Lucas countered.
Stifled groans from everyone followed his suggestion. Clearly, raiding three empty warehouses and a barn wasn’t sufficiently exciting for him.
“Enough.” Gabriel holstered his gun and crouched to grip the iron handle. He looked at the general. “Ready?”
They all trained their weapons, and Gabriel pulled.
And saw…a woman. She was lying in a small, coffin-like cubbyhole. She wasn’t moving. His heart stopped, then skittered madly; blonde hair covered her face, her thin shoulders dressed in a black blouse…
“Oh god, is she—” Claire’s voice from above him, strangled, almost a sob.
With a trembling hand, Gabriel brushed the hair from the woman’s face…and his heart sank. Not Parker. This wasn’t Parker. The woman’s cheek was warm under his touch, and when he slipped his fingertips to her throat, her pulse beat steadily.
“She’s just sedated,” he informed his colleagues.
“Get her out of there,” ordered Kai. “Get the medical team here, check her vitals.”
Gabriel looked up at his boss, surprised at the gruff tone of his voice.
“They had to have left just before we got here.” Nik was holding Claire and spoke over the top of her dark head. “For her to still be unconscious.”
“They knew we were coming.” Gabriel had come to the same conclusion. This space, remote and derelict but in Long Island, of all places, was too perfect to be abandoned for no reason. They should have at least found some supplies, maybe a lowly guard or two. Instead, Maxwell had left them with this parting gift.
“Who do you think she is?” Claire, clearly recovered from her shock, peered at the unknown woman being lifted onto a stretcher. “She smells like a shifter.”
“A jackal, I’d say,” replied Kai. “If she doesn’t wake up soon and identify herself, we’ll have to run her prints against the SANA database. In fact…” He motioned at a technician dusting a long old table for prints. “Run her prints anyway. She could be a Guard spy.”
“You think she let herself be tranquilized and stuffed into a box just so she could infiltrate SANA?” Claire’s eyes went wide at the thought.
“You would have done it, wouldn’t you?” Nik countered, but there was no rancor in his voice.
Instead, Gabriel had to look away at the man’s admiring gaze. These two were just perfect for each other.
“There’s something tucked into her back pocket, sir.” One of the medics pulled a small envelope from beneath the woman’s shirt and handed it to Kai.
“Gloves,” barked the general.
A panicked technician rushed over to get him a pair.
Kai slid his army knife under the flap and sliced the envelope open. Gabriel inched closer for a look, so he felt more than saw Kai flinch when he glimpsed the contents.
Gabriel moved without realizing it, snatching the Polaroid photograph from the general’s hands.
Parker was lying in a cage in her fox form, sleeping, her fur dirty and stuck in clumps. A small chunk of her left ear was missing, a folded newspaper propped up next to her.
The pain that punched through Gabriel’s gut was enough to make him drop the photo; he fumbled it, nearly crumpling it in his fist. That’s when he saw the back held a message.
Your friend for Nik. Leave a message at this number. A telephone number was scribbled underneath in blue ink.
Kai took the photo back and read the message aloud.
“Let’s do it,” Nik said, earning himself a punch from Claire. “What?” The former Guard lieutenant looked from Kai to Gabriel and then back at Claire. “You know it’s a good trade. I’d… I’d do anything to bring her back. I know how much she means to you.”
“Let’s do it,” Gabriel agreed.
If there was a way to rescue Parker, and Nik agreed…
“No!” Claire pushed Nik away and strode up to Gabriel.
She was almost a head shorter than him, and he had to remind himself to stand his ground when she yelled at him.
“Do you think that’s what Parker would want?” Claire asked. “To trade someone else for her? We’re not trading Nikolai, and you’re an ass to even suggest it, Gabriel West.”
Gabriel was about to point out that he wasn’t the one who’d come up with the idea, but Kai’s deep voice boomed over them all.
“SANA doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.”
They all turned to look at him.
“Your offer to sacrifice yourself is admirable, Gorski,” he continued. “But you know better than I that Reid Maxwell isn’t to be trusted. If we decided to trade you for Parker, chances are, you’d both end up dead. There’s no saying she’s still—”
“Don’t say it.” Gabriel didn’t recognize his voice. “Don’t you dare say she’s…” Dead. His mind supplied the word even though his lips couldn’t form it.
Claire tentatively touched his arm. “We’re not, Gabe. We’re just as worried about her as you are.”
You’re not. He wanted to shout at her, to push them all away. You can’t know what it’s like to lose your partner, to lose the one person who makes your days bearable.
They didn’t understand. Claire had found Nikolai, and Kai—Kai was some kind of robot who never seemed to need anyone. And Gabriel was stuck with young Lucas Thibault who talked too much, baked homemade bread, and refused to understand that eating smoked salmon in Gabriel’s car was strictly forbidden.
He laughed, a bitter, hollow sound—because the alternative was to cry. And he had no intention of breaking down right there. “What else are we going to do?” he asked. “We have no leads. No more thugs to shake down for information. We’ve exhausted every single scrap of data we got, and we’re still no closer to finding that motherfucker.”
When he got his hands on Reid Maxwell, he was going to rip off the bastard’s tail and shove it down his throat. Then set him on fire.
His body shivered, heralding his shift.
“Gabe, calm down.” Kai might have lowered his voice, but the words bore the unmistakable edge of command. “You know we’re doing everything we possibly can. And while we’re at it, please hand over that photo. Let my crew see if there’s a print on it—apart from yours, of course.”
The gentle rebuke brought him back from the brink of shifting. “Shit. Sorry.” He slipped the Polaroid into a clear baggie that a round-eyed technician held out to him. What was he thinking?
“We’ll try to arrange a meeting via that number,” Kai went on, “try to at least catch any messengers they send to the drop-off point. But I’m worried they might hurt Parker if they see we’re trying to double-cross them.”
“Don’t you think it would be better…”
Gabriel tuned out the chatter when others joined the discussion to determine the best next step. He turned to face the empty barn, sweeping his gaze across the churned-up, dirty floor. What had happened here? Had Parker fought in those cage fights? Was she hurt badly? Half her fucking ear was missing.
Another shiver wracked his body, and he knew he only had moments before the need to shift overwhelmed him. Stripping out of his combat gear, he piled his two guns on top. Then he whistled to get the others’ attention.
“Can someone make sure this gets back to HQ?”
Kai dipped his head ever so slightly, though his lips pressed together in disapproval. But it was Claire who said, “Are you crazy? It’ll take you hours to get home. And how will you get into the city?”
“Subway.” He forced a grin, though his cheek muscles hurt; he probably looked as if he was in pain.
The truth was that human brains glossed over the unexpected. If they saw a wolf trotting down First Avenue, they’d convince themselves it was a large stray dog. And even the city that never sleeps got quieter at four in the morning.
He turned his back on his colleagues, shoved his underwear down, and shifted mid-step. His more sensitive wolf’s nose twitched at the acrid scents hanging in the air, so he raced for the open back door, plunging into the darkness outside. A medic gave a startled gasp, but Gabriel paid her no mind.
All he knew was the frozen ground beneath his paws and the disappointment of having failed, yet again, to retrieve his partner. For a couple of hours at least, he would leave behind the worry and the powerless rage at the Guard and everything they stood for. He howled to the crescent moon, just visible through the thin winter clouds, and surged into the woods.

Zoe Ashwood is a romance writer with a passion for sweet stories with a sexy twist. While she’s always been a reader, Zoe’s writing used to be limited to diary scribbles and bad (really bad) teenage poetry. Then she participated in NaNoWriMo 2015 and never looked back.
Some 400,000 words later, she’s still in love with the art of making up stories—and making her characters fall in love. Trust the Wolf is her debut novel.
When she’s not writing, Zoe works as a literary translator. She’s happily married to her best friend and has two small boys who are as stubborn as they’re cute.
She’s active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but her newsletter or Facebook Group are the best way of keeping in touch!
Get Bearly Married, a free prequel novella to the Shift series, for free here: https://zoeashwood.com/newsletter/
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Excerpt: South Point by Dianna Wilkes

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Mystery & Suspense
Date Published: February 6, 2018
Publisher: RedBird Books
 
Paige Carson never expected that both a handsome sheriff and a charismatic newcomer would be vying for her affections. The choice isn’t an easy one, as she’s now responsible for raising her orphaned goddaughter, Jess.
Sheriff Sam Wallace didn’t lose at love. He got kicked to the curb. Hopeful that courting the feisty Paige will end differently, he can’t help but feel suspicious about his romantic rival. Is Ben Hampshire the man he seems—or is Sam’s jealousy clouding his perspective?
Sam’s determined to win Paige’s and Jess’s love, but he also has to keep Providence Island safe. More than just Sam’s heart is at risk if he fails to find the killer who walks the streets of PI—a killer with more than one agenda.

Excerpt from South Pointe:

Sam parked in front of Paige’s home. The drive from the restaurant had been a quiet one. Paige’s attempts to draw Jess into the conversation had resulted in the briefest of responses. As for the attempts he’d made… Well, Jess hadn’t entirely ignored him, but she’d put even less effort into her responses. No doubt she was worn out. The swift change from dynamo to drowsy wasn’t a surprise. Kids seemed to run on an on/off switch.

“I enjoyed our evening,” Paige said, breaking into his thoughts. “Though it wasn’t what you expected for a first date, was it?”

“I never know what to expect when it comes to you, and that’s what makes you so exciting.”

Her eyebrows shot upward. “Exciting, me? Hardly.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I’m just plain Paige.”

He released his seat belt and shifted slightly. A quick glance to the back revealed that Jess had fallen asleep. Even so, he lowered his voice. “You have the face of an angel and a joy for life that doesn’t stop. I haven’t known a dull moment in all the times we’ve spent together. Everything about you makes me want to know more.”

Her lips parted, and those gorgeous brown eyes gazed into his. “Wow.”

Sam chuckled. “Seems I’ve left you speechless.”

Her chin tilted upward, her luscious mouth just inches away. “So, that’s your secret power?”

“No, baby.” Sam cupped the nape of her neck in his palm. “This is.”

His lips touched hers, igniting a spark so unique, it had no comparison in his life.

The winning touchdown at his final high-school game. His first collar as a law-enforcement officer. All the kisses from every woman he’d ever dated. Everything paled beside what should have been a simple good-night kiss. But this kiss meant more than all those experiences combined. This kiss was the next step toward the life he yearned to have.

Paige slid closer, her fingertips touching his face. Her lips parted, accepting his gentle invitation.

He breathed her in, savoring her sigh just before he deepened the kiss. Her fingers slid through his hair to the nape of his neck, and it took every ounce of restraint he possessed not to take things further.

He eased away, ending the kiss sooner than he wanted. A girl next door didn’t neck in the front seat of a truck in a quiet residential neighborhood, especially not with a child in the back seat.

A child showing signs of waking up.

“Are we home?” Jess asked, her voice thick and drowsy.

A small gasp escaped through Paige’s lips, and she twisted her head toward the back of the truck. “Sure are. Ready to get out?”

Sam swallowed his disappointment and reached for the door handle. By the time he rounded the truck, Paige was helping Jess to the ground.

“I’ll get the car seat out while you unlock the door,” he said.

Heading toward the front walk, Jess whirled around. “It’s a booster, not a car seat.”

Sam bit back a laugh. “Excuse me. I’m new to this sort of stuff.”

“Mr. Nick knows the difference.” She whirled around and stomped to the front door.

“Sure put me in my place.” He pushed the car door shut and strolled up the front walk to where Paige waited.

“Sam, I’m sorry. She’s tired—”

“It’s okay.” He set the booster inside the door. “How did Nick get so high on her list this quick?”

“They bonded over dinner last night. Plus, he spent time with her while I talked with Danny about the custody case. To top it all off, he’s engaged to ‘Miss Dana’ and calls her Sprite.”

Sam winced. “Ouch, tough competition.”

She punched his arm. “I’m sure you can win her over.”

A gentle snore sounded from the couch. They both turned to see Jess curled on the cushions.

“Want me to carry her to her room?” He lowered his tone to avoid waking her.

“I can manage.”

Paige walked to the door and rested one hand on the latch. His cue to leave.

“I enjoyed tonight more than I’ve enjoyed anything in a long time.” He paused, hand on the doorframe. “Love to do it again.”

Head tilted, she smiled up at him. “I’d like that too.”

He looked around the room a final time. His gaze lingered a second longer on the sleeping child, then several more on the woman in front of him. “Make sure you lock up behind me.”

She burst out laughing, then tipped him a salute. “Yes, sir, Sheriff, and thank you very much. Never would have thought of that.”

He returned the salute. “Here to serve and protect.” Seeing Jess was beginning to stir, he stepped outside. “What’s up for tomorrow?”

“Painting Jess’s room. I’ll probably stop by the restaurant around noon to check in.” Paige shrugged. “And give the paint fumes time to clear out.”

“I might stop in and say hello. Maybe we could plan something in the evening.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “Let me see how things go. Jess and I both might need an early night.”

“Fair enough.”

One more kiss wouldn’t be out of line. Before he could put that plan into action, Paige made the move. Hands on his shoulders for balance, she lifted onto her toes. With her still several inches short of their lips meeting, Sam lowered his head.

She kept the kiss light and quick, barely more than a peck. Not the kiss he wanted, but one he cherished as a signal that Paige was ready to move forward.

“Night, Paige.”

“Good night, Sam. I had a nice time.”

The door closed behind him. He waited until he heard the lock being turned, then walked to his truck. Seconds later, the front of the house darkened. He sat for a moment, considering Paige’s last words.

Nice. A bland word for what had been the best evening he’d had in a long time. But it wasn’t a condemnation from Paige. “Nice” meant something else to her. She might be the girl next door, but from his point of view, temptation and chaos lived on the other side of that door.

A chuckle broke loose as he started the ignition. Nope, not a thing wrong with nice.

About the author and where to find her:

 photo DiannaWilkes_zpsbnv4sncv.jpgDianna Wilkes is an award-winning contemporary romance author, known for the Providence Island mystery series.  Reading has always been an important part of her life. “I learned to read when I was four years old,” she said. “Writing my own stories seemed a natural progression.”Dianna holds a B.A. in Visual Communication and a M.Ed. in Instructional Technology. She worked as an Education Consultant for a medical technology company before leaving the corporate world to write full time. Despite all that nerdy stuff, she loves creating stories of romance and mystery with touches of humor.When she isn’t writing, Dianna is deep in researching various twigs and branches on her family tree or fulfilling entries on her travel bucket list.

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