Christmas Giveaway!

This year I’m hosting a Christmas Giveaway. Just like the last giveaway, I’ll have two separate categories. One for International Readers and one for US Residents! Please enter the correct category. No entrants under 18 years of age, please. Rafflecopter links as buttons below the giveaway images.

Good luck and thank you for all your support!

Giveaway prize for US Readers only! A pair of teacups, five signed paperbacks, and two hand made pendants!
Giveaway prize for International Readers! Your choice of 4 ebooks from my backlist.

Dangerous Desires: A Steamy Victorian Short Story

Happy Halloween, my darlings! As a special treat, I’ve written a steamy short story to share for the spooky holiday season. This story contains graphic sexual scenes, blood, death, and a villain who may tempt you. It is absolutely NOT safe for work, nor recommended for anyone under the age of 18 years old. There’s my disclaimer. Now, enjoy this venture into the darkness…

Dangerous Desires

The Phantom showed no mercy to his victims, and yet she longed to cross his path, if only to experience what it would be like to encounter death.

For six months, Emily Whitcombe followed the papers relentlessly, searching for any sightings of the masked vigilante. She studied his crimes thoroughly, scouring the details of each report, desperate for a glimpse of the man beneath the mask.

Why would a proper young woman launch herself into such a macabre search with such ferocity? It was all in the name of research. At least, this was the truth in the beginning. Now, it had become an obsession, a passion. Her desire to uncover not only his identity, but his motivations. This surpassed the curiosity in which she began her search for information regarding her gothic novel.

“Daydreaming again, are you?” Mrs. Merriton appeared, bearing a tray laden with tea and sweets. She tutted and bustled forward, placing the tray on the table beside Emily.

“Of course, Mrs. Merriton, I have my meeting tonight and must have my latest chapter outlined before then.” Emily set aside the book containing the first draft of her novel.

“Must you venture out so late?” The older woman frowned. “And without a chaperone?”

A sigh escaped Emily. As sweet as the landlady was, she clung to the antiquated ideals of a lady’s role and expectations placed upon her in society. It was no use arguing with her about the reality of it being the dawn of a new century. In two months, a new era would begin with the turn of the century. 1900. There had been leaps and bounds in advancements not only for travel and communication, but for women’s rights and autonomy as individuals. Poor Mrs. Merriton seemed uninterested in changing her views, so Emily remained silent and poured the tea.

“Perhaps Roan would escort you to your meeting,” Mrs. Merriton interjected when the man in question walked past the archway.

He paused, peering into the room. His thick, dark hair, a tad longer than was fashionable, hung across his forehead. “Did you need something, Mrs. Merriton?”

Emily’s heart fluttered at the sight of him.

“Would you be willing to escort Emily to her meeting this evening?”

“That’s unnecessary.” Emily held up her hand, and it fell limply into her lap when Roan turned his gaze toward her. “I shall be quite all right walking across town.”

“Pish posh,” Mrs. Merriton protested with a snort. “‘Tis unseemly to have a woman bounding about town alone and after dark. Especially with this Phantom menace lurking about.”

The soft flutter of her heartbeat doubled, resembling a drumbeat in her chest at the mention of the Phantom. Oh, to have such luck.

“If you require my services, Miss Emily, all you need to do is ask.” Roan’s striking green eyes sparkled with amusement when he studied her face.

“I appreciate the offer, sir.” She brushed him off with a soft chuckle, even though her face warmed at his response. “But I shall be perfectly safe on my own.”

He stood in the archway wearing a strange expression she could not quite decipher. “As you wish.” With an inclination of his head, he ducked back into the hall and out of sight.

Emily passed the tea to Mrs. Merriton and gathered her belongings into a bag. The handsome, bashful gentleman showed such concern for her well-being. Of course, he was only offering his services at the behest of Mrs. Merriton, but she could not help but imagine the possibilities of such a gesture if he truly fancied her.

Four years past, at five and twenty, Emily found herself alone in the world after her parents perished in a fire that stole her home and her family’s fortune. Mrs. Merriton’s boarding house offered a comfortable residence during her mourning and subsequent years as an independent woman.

With a year until she turned thirty, Emily now desired to finally claim her true independence and strike out on her own. As soon as she finished her novel and submitted it for publication. Alas, writing a gothic romance seemed much harder than she previously believed, which proved just how important her monthly writing meetings were. She could not miss one, not when her story was so close to completion.

The elusive details, of course, rest in her current obsession with the Phantom. If only she were fortunate enough to encounter the dangerous killer whose presence had created such a commotion in their small coastal town.

Emily sipped her tea while Mrs. Merriton prattled on about something inconsequential. She nodded and smiled, but deep in her mind the wheels turned, searching for ways to capture the essence of the Phantom into her villainous character, Damon.

The stories of Jack the Ripper ten years past sent shivers down her spine, but the Phantom was something different, something dangerous and unexpected. His victims were always scoundrels, thieves, wastrels up to mischief. He never harmed women or children, or so the papers claimed. But there were never any specific details provided about the men he killed.

Even so, the newspapers sensationalized his bloody crusade, making him out to be an unwanted, treacherous vigilante who would corrupt the innocent and murder any who crossed his path. But there was always more to the story.

Determined, Emily squared her shoulders. If only she could meet this masked menace, then she could ask the questions burning inside her. He could impart the details only one with a tarnished soul could, feeding her curiosity and aiding her in completing her novel’s critical character arc.

Perhaps that was the true reason she longed to walk alone after dark. The chance, however slim, would still leave a window of opportunity.

After tea with Mrs. Merriton, Emily gathered her bag and retreated to the hall to gather her coat and gloves.

“You had best take care, Miss Emily.” Roan’s voice made her jump.

She spun, placing her hand on her heart. “You gave me a fright.”

“My apologies.” A soft smile pulled at his lips. “You seem to take a vested interest in the Phantom.”

“Research,” she protested, patting the bag on her hip. “For my novel.” The excuse sounded pathetic, even to her ears. Guilt rose from deep within, painting her cheeks with heat.

“Does the possibility of crossing his path not terrify you?” Roan asked, his voice low. The tone of his voice and the implication of his question set her heart aflutter.

“On the contrary, I do not fear him as he has not proven himself hostile to innocent women and children.” Emily studied Roan for a long moment. “If I were to encounter him, I would enlist his aid.”

“You would ask a murderer for help?” Roan’s lips twisted in a smile. “With what?”

“My book.” 

His laugh warmed her through.

“You find this amusing?”

“I do.” He crossed his arms.

Emily struggled to pull her gaze away from the way his shirt pulled tight against his muscular shoulders and chest. “What would you ask the Phantom, should you stumble upon him in the dark?”

“Does he delight in killing?” She licked her lips. “Is there pleasure in causing pain?”

Roan’s eyes darkened. “Do you believe pleasure and pain are opposites?”

“Of course.”

“Perhaps in your mind, but there are some who find pleasure in experiencing pain, as well as inflicting it.”

“Fascinating.” 

“You should leave, or you will be late for your meeting.” Roan stepped forward and opened the door. “Enjoy your evening, Miss Emily.”

Shaken from her tangled thoughts, Emily nodded and stepped out into the crisp, fall air. 

“Beware. The Phantom is not one with whom to trifle.” With those parting words, he closed the door.

Handsome, charming, devilishly shy, Roan kept mostly to himself. He became the most recent addition to Mrs. Merriton’s boarding house a year past. Traveling through, he found work at a printer in town and stayed.

Handy and helpful, he also found work around the house, exchanging his services for board. All the tenants adored him. Emily, however, found him to be both a distraction and a delight. Her initial admiration for his presence slowly grew into the need to be closer to him, to know more about his history. The innocent brushing of hands and shy glances gradually stoked an innocent curiosity into a simmering desire. One she kept firmly contained and locked away.

The sojourn across town proved uneventful, as did the writer’s gathering. Much was discussed, and Emily made several notes to her already complicated manuscript in which to expand the heroine’s plight by interweaving it with the villain’s. Of course, this left her quite torn about how to proceed with the story, sensing there may be a thread of romance blossoming between the leading lady and the dashing villain, leaving the poor hero confused and neglected. More threads for her to untangle later by gaslight.

Roan’s words haunted her. Is there a difference between pleasure and pain?

By the time the meeting concluded, the stars twinkled overhead and the distant clock in the town square chimed eight.

As she made her way across town, a train whistle sounded in the distance. She cut through the small station platform, barely noticing the two men standing at the far end. They turned as she approached.

“Oi, lovey, what’s a pretty dove like you doin’ out so late, eh?” The taller one grinned, bearing a mouthful of discolored teeth.

Emily backed up a few steps, colliding with the brick building. She scanned the deserted platform. A sickening dread settled in the pit of her stomach when the short, balding man drew a knife from his waistband.

“Come now, lass, we won’t hurt you,” he said.

Emily darted to the right, hoping to clear the building and find help. The tall man was quicker, snatching her by the waist and pinning her against the brick wall. His breath reeked of malted alcohol and rotten teeth. She gagged as his heavy breaths puffed across her cheek.

“We only want a taste of what you got under those skirts.” The bald assailant grabbed the fabric, pulling it up.

Emily struggled against the tall man’s hold, trying to jerk free from his grip. She kicked at his shin, but he blocked it with his foot and leaned his weight against her, holding her for his partner.

She pinched her eyes closed and turned away. A sob choked her as the bald man’s dirty hands ran along the inside of her thigh.

The blaring steam engine rushed past the platform, creating a gust of air and enough noise to cover her shouts for help. He clamped his hand over her mouth. Her eyes watered at the stench. She fixed her gaze past the men, watching the train passing by. Lights flashed behind them, casting an inhuman glow on her assailants.

A shadow split from the darkness beneath the lamppost. The tall, dark figure swiftly overtook the men. A flash of silver cut through the night, glinting in the light from the passing train. With a garbled cry, the bald attacker grasped his throat, dark liquid spilling from the hole gaping between his fingers. He fell to the ground.

The taller one fought against the assailant as they wrenched him off her. A sucking gasp echoed between the clicking of the train on the tracks. Warmth coated her face and soaked into her gloved hands. He dropped next to the first man.

Emily tore her gaze from the bodies lying at her feet. Sticky, warm blood dripped from her face. Her hands trembled. Her heart thundered in her chest.

The lights from the train cars flashed behind him, illuminating his form in a surreal flickering light. The shadowed man stood over his kill. Two slender blades in his hands. With an audible click, they disappeared into his sleeves. The train vanished beyond the platform into the trees leading outside of town, leaving them in strangled silence. He stepped into the sliver of light from the lamp on the corner.

Her breath caught in her throat. The Phantom.

He wore a black half mask. His hair tucked into a beaver skin top hat and a caped wool coat framed his broad shoulders. He held his gloved hand out to her.

She longed for nothing more than to take it.

Had she completely taken leave of her senses? This man murdered two men and stood before her like a gentleman asking for an evening stroll. Why was she not running away in terror? He was no threat. If he would have wanted her dead, she would be nothing but a twisted pile of blood and bones. 

No, he came to her aid, and something deep within her wanted whatever he offered.

Emily placed her trembling hand in his. He guided her around the bloodied heaps and away from the train station. The clicking of the train on the tracks echoed in the distance behind her.

He led her through town, darting down alleys, shifting this way and that, weaving through the buildings, but always remaining encased in darkness.

The Phantom knew his way around town with disturbing ease. They appeared on a side street that led to a small park. She glanced around, her eyes situated to the absence of light. Across the street rose the boarding house, silhouetted against the night sky on a quiet street.  

How did he know…the thought trailed off as he pulled her toward a small building covered in ivy and moss tucked deep in the park. The gardener’s workshop. He opened the door and tugged her inside, closing it behind them. His large form leaned heavily against the door, caging her inside.

The Phantom held her captive, but the fear she should have felt never came. A strange excitement settled over her, knowing her one wish had been granted.

The scratch and hiss of a match being struck echoed loud in her ears. A dim, flickering light flooded the small space as he lit the lantern. His masked face betrayed nothing as he watched her. Even in the close space, she could parse nothing from this angle. Not the color of his eyes, or the true angles of his face from beneath the mask.

“You’re the Phantom?” she whispered, pressing her hand to her chest. Her heart beat at such a quick pace that she thought it would burst.

He inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“What are you going to do with me?”

“What do you want me to do with you?” His baritone sent a delicious shiver through her. What was she thinking? He was a cold-blooded killer. And she had watched him slay those men with little effort.

“Let me go.”  

“I cannot do that.” He set the lantern on the workbench and crossed his arms.

“Please. I promise not to say anything to anyone.”

“You’re covered in blood.” His words were simple and direct.

Her gaze dropped to her pale blue gown, spattered with blood between the gaps in her cloak. Her white gloves stained beyond redemption. There was no way she could return to the boarding house dressed like this. But she had no clothes, no way to wash herself. She discarded her gloves and wiped her face with the hem of her gown.

“Bloody hell.” Nothing about this situation was appropriate.

Even though the Phantom murdered those men, he had saved her life. For that she was thankful. Pushing the horrible memories away, she met his eyes again. “What shall I do?”

“Remain here.” He pointed toward the wall behind her where a small cot lay in the back of the shed. “I shall fetch you some decent clothes.”

“Thank you for saving me.” Emily stepped closer, reaching out to grasp the hem of his greatcoat as he reached for the latch. The faint hint of cloves and cinnamon tickled her nose, tainted by something darker and much more masculine.

“A good girl would be home—” he turned and slipped his gloved hand under her chin “—in bed.”

“I am a good girl.” She should have backed away, repulsed at his touch. Yet she leaned into it, savoring the warmth curling low in her belly. There was something about him, tempting and strangely comforting. As if all her months of reading of his exploits made her intimately familiar with this man. If he wished to hurt her, he would have done so already. She boldly met his gaze, shadowed by the mask. His breath caressed her lips as he leaned close.

“But you like to live dangerously. Don’t you, Emily?”

Her surprise at his use of her given name melted under the soft press of his lips as they claimed hers. His kiss ignited sparks of energy. They zinged through her body, landing in the pit of her stomach and releasing a flurry of butterflies. A soft moan bubbled from deep inside her throat when his spiced lips parted against her own.

All her questions, her curiosity, faded into the background. In this moment, there was only him and unbridled desire coursing through her veins.

Emily wrapped her arms around his neck. Pulling him closer, she let her need pour out. He unfastened her cloak, letting it fall to the floor. She gasped as his hand closed over her breast, squeezing through the fabric. Her thighs were slick with arousal from his touch, his kiss.

He slid a blade from his sleeve and gently cut the laces of her gown and corset, letting them pool around her feet. She flinched as the blade retracted. He stepped back, but she tightened her grip on his lapel.

“I’m not afraid of you.” Her husky whisper sounded strange to her own ears. She stepped closer, allowing her hand to glide over the coat and slip between the fabric. His arousal hard against her palm brought a smile to her lips. He desired her.

“You should be.” His voice was dark, full of sinful promises.

In one smooth motion, he spun her around, pulling her against his body. His cock rubbed against the cleft of her ass, even through the heavy coat. He removed his gloves before holding her hips in place. His fingertips teasing her as they slid across her stomach and into the waistband of her drawers. She shivered as they disappeared in the curls between her thighs.

Emily arched into his touch as he parted her folds, dipping a finger into her. Lifting his hand to his mouth, he tasted her arousal. She swayed against him, wishing she could bury her face from the shame of such an intimate action.

At nearly thirty, Emily knew of the passion between a man and a woman, but never experienced it. Her insatiable curiosity drove her to boldness as she parted her thighs, allowing him complete access.

“You taste sweet, just like I knew you would,” he murmured against her ear as his fingers delved between her thighs again. He slid two fingers deep inside her, mimicking the act, pressing into her. His thumb strummed against the sensitive flesh at the apex. A spot she knew intimately alone, but it never felt like this.

Emily cried out, the pleasure of his touch overwhelming and new. It rose to a crescendo, leaving her gasping and panting as he teased her earlobe between his teeth. Pleasure radiated like fireworks against the night sky. Slumping against him, she whimpered as he pulled his hand away.

Emily laid her head back against his shoulder. He nuzzled her neck, kissing the spot where her pulse raced, and cradled her breasts in his hands, rolling her nipples gently between his fingers. She sighed, her body tingling and tender.

“Forgive me.” He stepped back, leaving a chill to fill the void.

Before she could reach for him, he straightened his coat and disappeared into the night. Emily stood, naked and drenched in her arousal, staring in disbelief after the Phantom.

Disappointment filled her. Did he not want her? She snatched a blanket from the small cot in the back of the shed. Wrapping it around herself, she stared at her ruined clothes on the floor. The memory of their shared passion tugged at her mind.

After several minutes, she cursed. She never got to ask her questions. Damn and blast.

Suddenly, the door burst open. Roan stood in the doorway, a lantern in his hand. His hair disheveled, looking as though he had not slept in days. Emily clutched the blanket to her chest, her face heating. This must look horrible.

“What happened, Miss Emily?” he asked, his eyes wide as he glanced at her ruined clothes on the floor, then back at her.

“I’ll explain later.” She tucked her hair behind her ears. “Can you sneak me into the house? Please.”

Without a word of protest, Roan blew out the lantern. Quietly, he led her back to the boarding house. When they reached the back entrance, Emily turned to him as he held the door open.

“Thank you.” She rose up on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. A lingering scent of cloves and cinnamon greeted her. His body stiffened as she pressed against him, her hand on his chest. “Roan,” she whispered, “How did you know I was in the shed?”

“I saw the light in the window.”

“How did you know…” She glanced at his lips, then his green eyes. “That I needed you.”

“Emily.” Her name fell from his lips in a dark, dangerous whisper.

“Have you been keeping secrets, Roan?” His eyes drifted closed as her hand ghosted over his cock. 

He gripped her wrist and met her gaze, his eyes glinting in the gaslight, then he pressed a finger to her lips. “Shhhh.”

She stumbled forward as he pulled her into his room and locked the door.

His fingertips burned against her wrist. She scrambled to catch her balance. The blanket slipped from her grasp and fell in a heap around her feet.

Roan’s hungry gaze drifted over her. “Is this what you desire, Emily? A villain. A monster?”

Standing nearly bare before him, Emily shivered, not from a chill but from pure need. What they had done in the shed, what she allowed him to do to her—saints, it left her aching and desperate. She bolstered her courage and rose to her full height.

“You are no monster.” She held his gaze, daring him to challenge her.

Warmth from the fireplace curled around them, casting an eerie glow against his face. A handsome, kind face. One she admired silently since the first day he appeared at the boarding house. Knowing Roan hid a darker side left her basking in confusion and want. A thousand questions assailed her, but those could wait.

“Sweet, innocent Emily. You cannot fathom what I am.” He stepped closer, running his fingertips along her jaw and down her throat.

“Then tell me.” She trembled beneath his touch, craving more. “Show me.”

Roan growled, taking her jaw in his firm grip, tilting her face up. “From this moment, you belong to me. Every tear, every drop of blood, every sigh of pleasure. They are mine alone.”

“Only yours,” Emily whimpered.

A raw groan tore from his lips as they crashed upon hers. Unbridled passion poured free from the fire burning between them.

He cradled her face in his hands, laying claim to her mouth, plundering his stolen prize. Emily surrendered to his touch and allowed him to guide her deeper into the darkness.

All her daydreams of haunting gothic romances shattered beneath the weight of his kiss. Roan had been the model for the hero of her tragic love story, and yet the Phantom had been the image she used as the insidious villain. But they were one and the same. And they now belonged to her.

Emily grasped his waistcoat in her fists and drew him closer. Her panting gasps echoed in the room amid the sounds of crackling flames. His searching hands skimmed over her bare flesh, leaving her skin sparking like embers bursting in the air. She fumbled with his waistcoat buttons, desperate to have him laid bare.

He grasped her wrists and spun her around, pinning her to the door. Those kind green eyes flickered with a darkness, a violent tempest raging within their depths. Using his full weight, he pressed closer, caging her against the solid wood. With his other hand, he tore the drawers from her waist, leaving her exposed. His thigh nudged the tender flesh he explored earlier.

She rocked against it, seeking release not from his hold, but from this unending torment. Pleasure danced just beyond her reach. If only she could…her body moved of its own accord, rubbing against the fabric of his trousers and the bulk of his thigh.

Roan’s low chuckle brought her crashing to a stop. “You would use me for your own delight?”

Emily ground her teeth. The agitation disintegrated on a moan when he nipped the tender flesh of her throat.

“Patience, my pet. I will ensure you are well sated before this night is out.” His fingertips traced along the insides of her wrists, sending her mind into oblivion.

There was nothing else in this moment aside from him.

My Phantom.

“Shall we play a game?” The question pulled her from her haze of desire.

“A game?”

“Your curiosity has put you directly in my path.” A lopsided smile tugged at his full lips. “I saw your notes. Your story.”

“You have been going through my things.” A shiver rippled through her. “Reading my work without my permission.”

“Curiosity, it seems, is something we share.” He leaned close, his breath brushing against her shoulder. His lips ghosted over the arch of her collarbone. “Watching you write in the window seat, day after day, disappearing into a world of your own creation. I could not help but wonder what could possibly seduce you with such force.”

Emily closed her eyes, savoring the warm path of his mouth against her overheated skin. She licked her lips, unable to grasp a thought from the jumbled mess of words circling in her mind like a murder of ravens taking flight.

“Tell me—” He brought his hand to her hip, his fingers digging into her flesh, pulling her closer and drawing a moan from her lips. “What thoughts haunt you that you dare not put on paper?”

“I—know not what you mean.” Fear and arousal spiked in equal measure, making her squirm against his hold. Every dark desire she locked away in her mind tumbled free, dancing on the tip of her tongue. Yet she bit her lip in restraint. Thinking about them was one thing, but voicing them to the object of her fantasies was something else entirely.

“Come now, pet.” He cupped her cheek, forcing her to meet his gaze. “I have read your lovely prose, but your words lack the passion I know lurks here.” His hand trailed down to rest between her breasts.

She arched into him as he brought himself closer. Her center brushed against the fabric covering his thigh, and he applied gentle pressure, soothing the ache enough to remind her of his control.

“Ask of me what you dare not put down in ink.”

The gentle brush of his fingertips along the curve of one breast unraveled what remained of her restraint. She craved what he offered. All of it.

“I need to feel.”

“Feel what?”

“Pleasure…and pain.”

His moss green eyes darkened, like a forest in the fading twilight. “Do you trust me?”

Indecision warred within her until the stronger tide swept her toward a decision. “Yes.”

A satisfied grin split his lips, making him look more villainous rogue than the kind, quiet man she believed him to be. His hand slid over her stomach, down until he cupped her sex in his palm. He groaned at the ease with which he parted her folds and caressed her.

Roan dropped to his knees and drew her thigh over his shoulder. He blew across her center, making her legs tremble. Pinning her against the wall with one hand, he held her steady as he dipped his head closer.

When his mouth closed over her sex, a moan ripped from her throat and she arched against him, thrusting her hips against his face. He lapped at her like a man starved, delving his tongue deep and suckling her flesh between his teeth. For every blissful spark of pleasure, he added a hint of momentary pain. A kiss, then a bite, until her nerves frayed with the unknown.

She threaded her fingers in his thick hair, tugging and pulling. He redoubled his efforts until she sagged against the door, unable to bear her own weight.

With a growl, he shot to his feet, grabbed her by the waist, and pulled her against him. His mouth crashed down on hers. She balked at the taste of herself on his lips but softened after a moment of acclimation. He cradled her face in his hands and drank deep.

Emily swayed when he pulled away.

“Grasp the bedpost and spread your legs.” His order sent a bolt of need straight to her cunt.

Placing her hands on the bedpost, she canted her hips as she widened her stance. Emily glanced over her shoulder.

Roan’s gaze drifted down before returning to meet hers. Slowly, he slid his waistcoat from his shoulders and tossed it aside. Her mouth watered at the precise movement of his fingers unfastening the buttons from their tiny nooses. When he peeled the shirt from his torso, Emily bit her lip at the strong, broad chest he revealed. A dusting of hair dipped down into the waistband of his trousers. He tugged them down over his hips.

Emily shifted her weight, unable to bear the torment of waiting a moment longer. When he withdrew his cock with its sloping curve and tapered, glistening head, she gasped at the thickness of it.

He chuckled at her reaction. “Have you changed your mind, pet?”

She shook her head and tightened her grip on the bedpost.

Roan stood before her, his hand stroking his cock. It tormented her to remain still, to wait for his direction. She pulled away from the post.

He closed the gap between them, wrapping his hand around her throat. “Impatient?”

“Please.” A keening moan tore from her throat as he gripped the base of her neck, putting just enough pressure to make her head spin.

Roan pushed her down onto the bed. Gripping her hips, he drew her back against him until her backside lay spread for his perusal. He ran his cock along her seam, coating himself in her juices. She rocked back against him, desperate for him to fill her.

His hand came down on her ass hard.

She squealed as the pain radiated through her, giving way to an aching, pulsing pleasure.

“Behave, pet. Next time, I will leave a mark.”

A question formed on her tongue, but a strangled cry broke free instead when Roan drove his cock deep into her. He split her in two, the pressure bringing tears to her eyes. She buried her face in the blankets as he withdrew and thrust deep again.

Her hands fisted in the fabric as she scrambled for a firmer grip. Over and over, Roan pounded into her. His hips bruising her backside. His fingertips gripped tight as he guided himself home, again and again.

With every stroke, the discomfort and pain ebbed away, making room for a blossoming pleasure. Emily rocked back against him, opening for him and welcoming his onslaught.

“Good girl.” He stroked the curve of her ass before withdrawing.

The loss of his touch and his cock buried deep inside her left her confused. Roan pushed her up onto the bed, rolling her onto her back. He climbed up, settling between her thighs and fitting himself to her once more.

Roan pressed his fingers to the tight bud he had laved with his tongue earlier, gently rolling it. Stars flickered behind her eyelids. With every jerk of his hips, his hand moved in tandem.

Emily dug her nails into his arms as the tension pulled tight inside her. When it snapped, his name broke free on a gasp. The release washed over her, like waves crashing on the shore.

Roan leaned forward, capturing her lips in a bruising kiss. He quickened his thrusts, driving her deeper into the bed. She thread her fingers through his hair and pulled.

He hissed a breath between his teeth and buried his face in her neck. The sting of his teeth against her skin made her clench around his cock. His seed filled her as he slowed his pace, finally coming to a rest with his head against her shoulder.

Sticky and sated, Emily stroked her finger along his nape. When he finally withdrew, he rolled onto his side and pulled her back against him.

Together they laid in the flickering firelight, silence a balm between them.

“Will you tell me?” she asked, sleepy and content.

“Tell you what, pet?”

“Why you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Kill.”

“Sleep first, then I shall tell you whatever your heart desires.”

A frown tugged at her lips. “But I must know why.”

His heavy sigh tickled her cheek. “To protect you.”

Confusion mingled with exhaustion, muddling her mind. “I don’t understand.”

“You will, pet.” He kissed her shoulder. “Sleep.”

It was useless to argue with him. She would have her answers soon enough. Burrowing into the pillow, she yawned and closed her eyes. His arm draped over her, keeping her close and safe.

In all the time she knew Roan, she desired him. But knowing she possessed both his heart as well as the Phantom’s left her with a deep-seated satisfaction.

The ending of her novel took frame in her mind as she drifted off to sleep. The hero was the villain in the end after all.

***

Roan stared into the distance, watching the shadows of the flames dance upon the patterned wallpaper. Emily’s soft breaths became deeper, more even until she relaxed completely against him, lost to the warm embrace of slumber.

The tension eased from his shoulders, and he inhaled the sweet scent of her, of their union.

This would certainly complicate matters.

How could he possibly give her the answer she sought without revealing the truth?

He stroked her cheek, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear. She curled deeper into his embrace.

So trusting. So innocent.

Roan grinned. His plan had worked, and now she lay content in his arms, oblivious to the danger encroaching on her perfect little world.

He made sure she would never recognize him from before that night. The night he killed her family with a single overturned lantern and a window curtain.

Her father stole everything from him, and he plotted his revenge. He never intended to seduce her. To fall in love with his enemy’s daughter.

Could he follow through with his vengeance?

Her soft moan filled the room. He tightened his hold on her.

Everything in his body screamed to keep her safe, to protect her. But his soul demanded blood. Payment for the wrongs done to him.

Perhaps he could indulge, keep her for a time. Love her.

The darkness in his soul crept forward, demanding satisfaction.

“Not yet,” he whispered to the darkness. She may yet bring hope.

Such dangerous desires. Ruin visits to those who dare to dream. To hope for something more.

With a kiss to her temple, he closed his eyes. He would worry about it later. For now, he would savor this woman. Even if she bore the name of the man who killed his family and left him in despair.

The End

Inspiration: Captain Pike, the Orient Express, and Daddy Issues

One bright summer day, I was chatting with my good author friend, Brianna Hale, about an idea she had for a new story. An older man who falls for the daughter of his close friend. Her story was contemporary, set in a fictional European country and a train crossing the continent. But the concept intrigued me.

More than that, it took root in my mind. Why? What’s so special about this story idea?

The man who inspired the hero of her story is one of my favorite Star Trek captains. See, we’re both fans of Star Trek: Discovery and had been smitten by the new incarnation of Captain Christopher Pike. Any Trekkie will tell you the importance of his character and the horrible fate he experiences. His journey is engaging and thrilling. Truth is, we were both smitten by his silver fox charm, those soulful blue eyes, and of course, the matching dimples he flashes with a warm smile. Anson Mount is sinfully gorgeous.

The best part of her idea was the romantic pairing that kindled her book idea. In our discussions about the handsome captain, I discovered Brianna also shipped Captain Pike with Ensign Tilly. While these two never hook up on screen, I daydreamed often about the thousands of possibilities. The way he looks at her…freaking swoon. I even indulged in writing a short fan fiction, giving them a stolen moment of passion. *wink*

Using the basic premise that inspired Brianna’s book, I crafted my variation in the late Victorian era. I altered everything else to fit my spin on her original concept with her permission, of course. One of the biggest components I kept was the train. But I needed it to fit the era I chose to write in, 1899.

Enter the Orient Express. It filled in the blanks for the inspiration I needed showcasing travel in the lap of luxury in the early 20th century. I took a page from the history of the Orient Express and created the Alpine Express. A sister line to the world famous express. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take a trip through the alps on a fancy train with all the amenities.

Placing the characters together in close quarters on a train put them in a position where they couldn’t escape. It forced them to face each other and the truth of their attraction. Add in a little mystery, a long-lost friend, some political intrigue, and an avalanche and watch the chaos ensue. But this story wouldn’t be complete with a little forbidden romance, would it?

Matilda Hudson is in love with Major Anson Montgomery. The worst part: he’s her father’s closest friend. When she meets him for the first time at twelve years old, she falls hard. But when he leaves the country, he never returns. She sends him letters, which he kindly returns, but he shows no interest in his best friend’s daughter. Until he meets her again on her twenty-first birthday in Paris.

Oh, the torment and indecision.

When she chases after him, following him onto the Alpine Express, he’s left with no alternative but to return her to her father and wash his hands of her foolish notions. But deep down, he grows to care for her and everything falls apart.

As Brianna and I talked about our individual projects, we joked our heroines had Daddy issues and that’s why they fell in love with men so close to their own father’s age. While there’s no underage flirtation or taboo romance in my story, there are some who may dislike the whole age gap romance and the fact that she loved him since childhood. I absolutely understand this hesitation. These tropes aren’t for everyone.

Seduction on the Alpine Express has a special place in my heart. When I started this story, I did not know the wonderful secondary characters it would create. This story introduces us to the major’s friend, Nikolai Veronia, a Russian bodyguard. Nikolai stole my heart, and I wrote his story in Temptation on the Alpine Express. I’ll write his story’s inspiration in a later post.

A huge thanks to Brianna Hale who gave me the spark for this book. I hope one day she finishes the story she started using these characters as the inspiration. I’ll be first in line to read it.

If you haven’t seen Captain Dimples in action, I highly recommend you check out Star Trek: Discovery (he’s only in season two) as well as Star Trek: Strange New Worlds with Captain Pike at the helm.

As the good captain says, “Hit it.”

That sounds so naughty out of context. Oh, well.

All my love,

Kirsten

Birthday Giveaway!

This week I’m hosting a Birthday Giveaway for both my US and International readers to show my thanks and celebrate this monumental milestone. Thank you, darling readers, for all your love and support.

For my US Readers, I’m offering a chance to win a pair of gorgeous tea cups and SEVEN signed paperbacks.

For my International Readers, I’m offering a chance to win YOUR CHOICE of 4 eBooks from my backlist.

I’ve listed them separately, so everyone gets a fair chance. Please be sure you enter the correct giveaway and good luck!

I will announce the winners on September 1st on all my social media platforms.

Also, I’m hosting a sale for Mississippi Moonshine this week. Only 99 cents!

I hope you enjoy it! Sending you all my love.

Kirsten

Teaser: Reign of Wicked Temptation

The day has arrived. All three books in the Prince of Whispers Trilogy are now available in print and ebook!

In celebration of yesterday’s release of Reign of Wicked Temptation, allow me to share the first chapter here for your enjoyment. It’s on sale for 99 cents until August 11th. Grab your copy now. But remember, this cannot be read as a stand alone!

I’ve listed some content forewarnings beneath the blurb. This prince isn’t for everyone. Please proceed with caution. No readers under 18 years old. (This book contains explicit language, adult situations, and violence.)

When he whispers, you will come.

Darkness hangs over the King of Meradin. Crispin suffers, unaware of the fate of his queen and his most loyal companion. His rage simmers beneath the surface threatening to consume the kingdom and what little remains of his soul.

Nothing is what it seems and he can trust no one. With Ruby and Henry missing, Crispin refuses to address anything besides recovering what belongs to him. He vows the kingdom will not rest until the queen and his trusted steward are returned unharmed.

Crispin’s past actions have led him to this point, and he must face the consequences before peace can be restored to the land. True change comes from within. In order to save Ruby, he will need to make the ultimate sacrifice.

***Author’s Note: If you’re not a fan of anti-heroes with dominating and questionable morals, explicit intimate scenes, or graphic language and violence, then this may not be the book for you. For a complete list of content forewarnings, please visit kirstensblacketer (dot) com and click on the Jen Bradlee tab in the menu.***


Chapter One

A scream pierced the darkness. Henry gasped and coughed, a familiar metallic taste burning his tongue. He groaned and pressed his hands against the cold stone floor. His body ached worse than it ever had after sparring or a long day in the saddle. Worse than when he and Crispin took down a band of thieves on the border, and he earned himself a scar on his side as payment for his good deed. The pain hung heavy around his shoulders, pinning him to the floor. The abrasive stone cooled his cheek. Even as he struggled to right himself, his limbs refused to cooperate.

Henry took several deep breaths and rested, willing his body to function. Where was he? Flashes of the altercation in the forest flickered in the back of his mind. Riding along the moonlit road. The wagon blocking their path. The raiders.

“Ruby!” Henry shouted with the effort it took to push himself up. Where was she? Had they taken her? Killed her? Where was he? The questions trudged through his mind, slowed by the haze of pain radiating through him. His head pounded like a hammer against an anvil, and his limbs ached with heaviness, protesting with every movement. Whoever took them captive must have beat him while he was unconscious. Never before had he experienced such agony ripping him apart from the inside.

The room contained a bed along the wall and a pot in the corner. Try as he might, he could not focus on the items in the room. He blinked attempting to clear his vision. Henry touched his face, covering his swollen right eye. The blur cleared into solid forms. He made a conscious effort to keep his injured eye closed and surveyed the room once more.

A prison cell. The sliver of light came through a thin slat in the solid wooden door held in place with iron hinges. Gripping the edge of the bed, Henry pulled himself up but stumbled at the tightening pressure around his ankle. He jerked his feet, dragging a chain across the stone. Manacles bound his feet, fastened to the wall by a chain.

Fighting against the restrictive bonds, Henry managed to pull himself up and sit on the bed. Another scream pierced the silence. His heart pounded harder, sweat formed on his neck, sliding over his skin and sending a shiver down to his bones.

Henry leaned against the wall in an effort to regain his balance. Nausea overwhelmed him. Had he anything in his stomach, it would have spilled with little resistance. He braced himself as the waves slowly subsided. He pressed his eyes closed, fighting off the instability of his vision. It reminded him of the sea voyage to France where he spent most of the trip bent over the rails unable to stand or eat. This was no voyage. This was far worse than he could have ever imagined.

He licked his cracked lips, tasting the blood caked upon them. He moaned at the sting and longed for the sweet, refreshing kiss of a mountain spring or a dram of mead, anything to quench his thirst and clear his mind.

Another scream echoed from beyond the door and gripped his soul. Ruby.

Ignoring the protests of his body and the limits of his chains, Henry shot off the bed and lunged for the door. The manacles snapped tight, bringing him to an abrupt halt and slamming him down onto the ground. Jarred, Henry struggled to his feet, bracing his hand against the cold stone wall.

Murmured voices filtered through the narrow slat in the door. He could make out nothing but the low cadence of two distinct voices.

“Release me, you sniveling bastards!” Henry shouted. His voice broke mid-curse, hoarse from disuse and thirst.

“You live. What a pity. I had a wager you would die during the night.” A deep chuckle filtered through the slat.

Henry glared with his good eye trying to glimpse his captor, but he saw nothing but a shadow against the wood. “Where is she?”

“The queen is no longer your concern.” The man’s tone implied his malicious intent toward both of his captives.

“If you harm her, I will eviscerate you and leave your rotting carcass for the crows,” Henry growled. His hands balled into tight fists.

“You waste what little breath remains in you.” Even though he could not see the man’s expression, pleasure reflected in his words. “If you persist, I shall be forced to punish the queen for her guard’s inability to follow direction.”

Even though he never relayed Ruby’s state, Henry took this information as a sign she was not dead as he feared. He inhaled deeply, allowing this small shred of hope to fill him with a steadying peace.

“Whatever game you play at, you will not win. The king will come for her.” Henry chuckled at the horrifying image his words brought to mind. Crispin would certainly come, and he would show no mercy. “He will slaughter you with pleasure, as well as anyone who follows your direction.”

“He is inept and consumed by childish, petty distractions.” His captor sounded bored. “The queen and the kingdom are no longer his. History will regard him as nothing more than a stain on the royal bloodlines of Europe.”

“The people of Meradin are loyal to King Crispin and Queen Eleanor.” Strength infused Henry. “This act of treason will not stand.”

Coarse laughter met his statement. “Once the people see the man beneath the crown for what he truly is, a selfish, deceitful imposter hellbent on his own personal gratification at the expense of those around him, they will turn their hearts.” The amusement faded. “Even after he used you for his own perverse pleasure, you stand steadfast in his service. Such loyalty is misplaced.”

A chill coursed through Henry. “My loyalty is mine to do with as I see fit.”

“And your body, does that also belong to you, or does your king control it as well?” The faceless villain tormented him.

Henry shook his head, reigniting the stabbing pain. “I know not what you imply with such venomous assumptions, but I am my own master.”

“You went willingly to his chamber. Indulged in wicked acts with them both freely of your own will?” Hearing it aloud brought shame and uncertainty.

“You rely far too heavily on the whispers of servants and idle gossip.” He swallowed the fear rising in the back of his throat. His chest tightened as the walls around him crept closer.

“The truth matters not. Rumors and gossip foster revolution. The people will demand a king who will not desecrate their kingdom for his own wicked desires.” The captor tisked. “’Tis better if you concede defeat. No one is coming. Death will bring the relief you crave. Freedom is merely an illusion.”

Before Henry could respond, the sound of receding footsteps echoed beyond the door.

“You son of a bitch! You will burn in hell for this, mark my words!” His throat burned from the effort he expended. He screamed and the anguish escaped, sliding off the stone and filling his soul with grief. How could he have allowed this to happen?

He should never have taken Ruby out of the castle. He endangered them all with his careless actions, and they now suffered the consequences of his poor decision. Ruby was alive, for the moment. That alone gave him comfort, and yet he knew that comfort would be short-lived. Whoever captured them had much larger plans than he first assumed.

Their captor intended to use the queen to force the king’s hand. They would take the throne by force. Blood would fill the streets if he successfully turned the people against the monarchy. Those who were loyal to Crispin would suffer.

He could not focus on something out of his control. First and foremost, he needed a way to escape and steal Ruby away from this madman.

Henry rested his head against the wall. Who could possibly want to tear the kingdom apart? There were many who disliked Crispin and wished to remove him from the throne. But none he knew of were brazen enough to invoke his wrath by taking the queen. Ignoring the pain and his thirst, Henry took what tools were given to him and replayed the events leading to their capture. If all he had was time, he would use it to the best advantage. There was always hope, even if it felt helpless. If only he could force himself to believe it long enough to survive.

Inspiration: Assassin’s Creed, Teresa Medeiros, and the Sarcastic Muse

My foray into medieval romance didn’t begin as Jen Bradlee with The Prince of Whispers. It began with the Shadow Guardians a long time ago. These two books drew vastly different inspiration than Jen Bradlee’s trilogy.

The book took on life years ago in the kernel of an idea I had for a story when I was fifteen. I made some notes and tucked them into a folder where they sat for years. It wasn’t until I joined a writer’s group in Clarksville, Tennessee, in my mid-20s that I really considered writing anything of length and substance. Until that point, my writing remained confined to poetry and journaling. But I always wanted to write a novel. This group encouraged me to do so.

But they weren’t the only ones. While living on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with bestselling historical romance author, Teresa Medeiros. She loved the idea of my Shadow Guardians and encouraged me to write it. I’m a huge fan of her work and always wanted to become a romance author. Her kind words and support sparked a renewed desire to write a novel.

Between Teresa Medeiros’ encouragement and my monthly writer’s group, I had finally uncovered my calling. This writer’s group consisted of a variety of authors from several genres, but I was the only romance author in the group. Even so, they helped me polish my voice and strengthen my prose. When I left the group (thanks to a military PCS), I kept in touch with a handful of the authors from the group and we started our own writer’s blog/group called The Sarcastic Muse.

The Sarcastic Muse no longer exists, but their influence lingers. They gave me the support and encouragement I needed to write a full length novel. One of the members sat with me on Skype every day as I wrote the first draft during National Novel Writing Month in November of 2012. Often we would sit in silence and work, occasionally bouncing ideas off of one another and brainstorming in those moments between writing sprints. I wrote 50,000 words in one month. The most I had ever written up to that point. And I couldn’t have done it without my fellow writers cheering me on.

But where did the idea for An Irresistible Shadow come from?

Well, the very first idea I had for the book was for a spirited princess who disliked all her father’s knights to fall in love with one of the mysterious warriors who appears at court. As you can see, the idea evolved into a story about Baron’s daughter who preferred her independence over the traditional expectations placed upon her by society. Of course, she falls in love with a mysterious, hooded stranger who claims loyalty to none and has deigned himself to be her personal protector. A Shadow Guardian.

Where the hell did I get that idea?

Blame Assassin’s Creed. One day I saw a picture of Ezio, and the faded outline of my Shadow Guardian took hold of my muse.

I borrowed some of Ezio’s design and created my secret protector. Most notably, the deep hood covering his identity. Gabriel became my first Shadow Guardian in An Irresistible Shadow. He’s a knight of sorts, with a heavy investment on the unstable activity along the English and Scottish border in the 14th century. His passion is only exceeded by his skills.

Evelyn, my brash, independent heroine, was heavily inspired by Merida from the Pixar movie Brave. She’s the perfect complement to Gabriel, and together they make a formidable team.

I loved writing their story. Now, I look back on their book with fond memories. My first novel. My first big publication. My first everything.

This book brought me so much joy and tons of experience. It paved the way for me to enter the publishing world and taught me a wealth of knowledge for editing and marketing. I waded through the tangled process of becoming a published author and came out with a shiny novel. An Irresistible Shadow will always have a special place in my heart, even with its newbie flaws.

And of course, it spawned a second novel thanks to two very persistent secondary characters.

I wouldn’t be the author I am today without this novel and those who encouraged me to write it.

Thank you, my friends, for having faith in me and showing unwavering support and love. I appreciate it more than you can possibly imagine.

You never know when inspiration will strike or where it will come from. Write all of your ideas down and tuck them away. There just might be a novel hidden in those random thoughts. I hope this inspires you to write it.

All my love,

Kirsten

Teaser: Seduction Most Wicked

When he whispers, you will come.

Here is a sneak peek at the second book of The Prince of Whispers Trilogy, Seduction Most Wicked. I’ve listed some content forewarnings beneath the blurb. This prince isn’t for everyone. Please proceed with caution. No readers under 18 years old. (This book contains explicit language, adult situations, and violence.) Releases on July 12th. Enjoy…but be warned, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Book 3 releases August 9th.

With Ruby by his side, Crispin Saville takes his place on the throne as King of Meradin. The first months of his reign are fraught with rumors of treason and deceit. Crispin and Henry, his trusted ally, search the kingdom to root out those who threaten the stability of the monarchy.An unexpected guest shakes the foundation of Crispin’s kingdom, setting off a series of events which could destroy not only the kingdom but his hard-won bond with Ruby.Deception runs rampant within the walls of the castle. Secrets and lies infiltrate those closest to the king. Ruby uses her influence to calm the raging tempest inside him, but his wicked heart may be stained beyond redemption. It will take more than love to save his soul and the future of Meradin.

Contains: Still Morally Gray Hero, Possessive Hero, Questionably Poor Decisions made by Secondary Characters, Dubious Consent, Explicit Sex Scenes, Mature/Graphic Language


Chapter One

Was Crispin dead?

The concern for her husband’s life weighed as heavily upon her as the bounty once had. Ruby wrested herself from those distracting thoughts, determined to focus on the task before her. The harvest festival would take place within a fortnight and much of the planning remained. There was no time to worry about something over which she had no control. She wandered among the tables in the great hall, her gaze skimming over the selections brought for her approval by the villagers to decorate the town.

Two moons passed since her marriage and the coronation, and still, she could not find comfort in her new position. While she knew her life as queen would not be as exciting as her life as an outlaw, it granted her small windows of opportunity to place her mark upon her kingdom without being branded a traitor. She longed for the freedom of the forest, but the path that lay before her bound her both to Crispin and the people of Meradin. This truth proved unshakable.

“Have you made a decision, your majesty?” The servant girl, Ivy, stepped forward. Her hands folded demurely in her lap, eyes downcast.

“I have not.” Ruby waved her hand across the selections. “I am indecisive. They are all beautiful in their own way. Perhaps you could offer some perspective, Ivy.”

Ivy’s gaze snapped up to meet hers. “You wish for my opinion?”

Ruby regarded her with a smile. “Aye, I trusted your judgment when it came to my trousseau, why would I not grant you the same leave when it comes to decorating for the harvest festival?”

“I am your humble servant, my queen. Truly.” Ivy hesitated when the door opened behind her and Vivienne entered the room. “I do not wish to overstep the bounds of propriety.”

“How in heaven would you selecting some garland be overstepping?” Ruby inclined her head to Vivienne who came to a stop beside her.

“I agree.” Vivienne brushed her fingers over the woven garland. “Which would you choose, Ivy?”

“This greenery would stand out the best against the individual stands with the red and gold accents. These garlands would be best around the inner and outer bailey.” Ivy itemized each piece placing it perfectly in the mind’s eye. When she finished, she bowed her head.

Ruby motioned to the other servants. “Take these with instructions for the villagers to have more made for the celebration.” The weight on her shoulders lightened with the decision. She turned to Ivy. “My thanks for your help. I am confident in your selection.”

“As you wish, your majesty.” Ivy bowed and followed the other servants out of the room bearing an armful of garlands and fabrics.

Once the solid doors closed leaving her alone with Vivienne, Ruby collapsed on a nearby bench. Longing and exhaustion clawed at her chest. She gazed at the vaulted ceiling wishing it were canopied expanses of blue sky.

“Come, my dear.” Vivienne ventured toward the staircase leading into the heart of the castle.

Ruby pulled herself to her feet wondering where Crispin’s mother intended to take her. They wove through the corridors and passed Crispin’s chambers. Her heart ached. She missed him desperately.

The day after the wedding, Henry’s family disappeared from the capital of Culver without taking their leave. They gave no indication as to the reason for their sudden departure. Even though Ruby felt nothing but relief at their absence, Crispin and Henry immediately banded together in his private chambers only to emerge and leave the castle the next morn, abandoning the tournament which was to be held in honor of their marriage. He kissed her thoroughly before leaving without a word of explanation.

After two moons passed, the only assurances of his safety she received were from the messenger relaying information to the privy council. Part of her resented him for departing with such haste and shrouding his intentions in secrecy.

Vivienne stepped through the archway leading to Crispin’s personal garden. The flowers faded on the vine, retreating from the burgeoning chill of the approaching winter. Ruby brushed her fingers over the bruised petals.

“Come, let us tarry a while.” Vivienne sat on the stone bench against the wall and gestured for Ruby to join her. “Speak to me, child. I cannot offer comfort if you do not unburden your heart.”

“My apologies.” Ruby settled onto the bench and leaned against the wall.

“I do not want your apologies, I desire to know what thoughts plague you.” Her soft voice held no censure, only concern.

“I cannot help but wonder if I have made a mistake.” She toyed with the gilded hem of her gown. “I made a much better outlaw than I do a queen.”

“You judge yourself quite harshly.” Vivienne took her hand.

“’Tis the truth. I may be of royal blood, but deep in my breast beats the heart of an outcast.” Ruby attempted to collect the chaos of her thoughts into coherent reasoning. “I cannot even make the simplest of decisions in preparation for the festival, how am I going to influence the kingdom?”

“You are adrift in an unfamiliar sea. I understand.” She nodded with sage understanding. “Even though I was raised in the court from birth, I had not been the first choice. With three elder sisters, my parents placed low expectations on my marriage ever forging a strong political alliance.”

Ruby studied her profile as she spoke. Everyone knew Queen Vivienne was the Bavarian cousin of Catherine of Valois. But these intimate details of her past were not something often discussed among courtiers. Vivienne knew better than to foster any gossip of the royal courts.

“The first time I saw Edgar, I wanted to strangle him. He paid me no mind, focusing all his attention on my elder sister, Sophia. They were engaged within a fortnight.” Vivienne chuckled at the memory. “Before they were to leave my parents’ estate and return to Meradin for the wedding, Sophia eloped with the stable master’s son. My father offered me as a replacement for Edgar’s stolen bride.”

“Against your will?” Ruby bit back the fury of indignation on her mother-in-law’s behalf.

“Not completely against my will.” Vivienne winked with a grin on her lips. “I seized it for the opportunity it was. A chance to become queen and exert some influence, even if it came through my husband. Although, I found myself floundering the first few years. Nothing prepared me for the reality of wearing the crown.”

Her story tugged at Ruby’s heart. “So there is hope for me?”

Vivienne drew her close and pressed a kiss to her head. “Aye, my child. There is hope for you still. Do not be disheartened. I shall instruct you, should you need it, but trust your intuition. It will not lead you astray.”

“How can you be so certain?” Doubt fluttered in the pit of her stomach even though the words bolstered her confidence.

“When you were in the forest living as an outlaw, which did you rely on more, your training or your intuition?”

Ruby pondered the question for a long moment, but the answer formed in her mind immediately.

“You saw my son in trouble and acted on intuition alone, relying on your training to come naturally.”

“Aye.” The reasoning behind her assessment soothed the chaos in her mind.

“Even with all the training in the world, it means nothing if you do not trust your intuition. It will guide you to the right path, as it always has before.” Vivienne’s gracious smile warmed her.

“My thanks for your words of wisdom.” The restless unease in Ruby’s soul settled leaving just a smidgen of lingering doubt deep in the pit of her stomach.

“I have faith in you, my dear. One day, you will be the regaled as the most beloved queen in all Meradin’s history.”

Ruby snorted at the statement but covered her mouth quickly. “My apologies. I did not mean to laugh.”

“You will see. One day.” Vivienne stood and brushed her hands over her fine crimson velvet skirt. “I have some things to attend. Perhaps you should take some time to rest in your chambers, you look pale. Have you been eating?”

“Aye. I have not slept well since Crispin departed.” Inside, relief washed over her. She was exhausted but did not wish to retreat from her duties. “A rest will do me wonders.”

“I understand. I shall send Ivy with some warm broth.” She paused in the doorway and glanced back at Ruby. “And do not fret, my dear, Crispin will return soon. Lord knows you will need your strength for when he returns.”

Ruby’s face warmed at the implication of her words. After their wedding night, the entire castle witnessed the ferocity of Crispin’s desire for his bride. The thought of his return left her body warm and planted a desperate ache deep inside her.

Once she reached her chambers, she freed the pins from her hair and loosened the plait before lying on the coverlet. Images of her husband floated through the haze of her memories. His wicked mouth on her skin. His teasing fingers parting her folds. His body fitting perfectly to hers. Ruby’s breathing came in shallow bursts as the restless ache consumed her.

A knock at the door pulled her from her sensual thoughts.

“My queen.” Ivy entered the room bearing a tray. “My apologies, I did not realize you were abed.”

“’Tis no matter.” Disappointment replaced the aching need. She rose from the bed and settled in the comfortable chair beside the hearth.

Ivy placed the tray on the table beside her. “Will you require anything more, your majesty?”

“Nay, I shall be quite content.” She lifted the bowl to her lips and sipped the broth. Her stomach twisted and lurched against the scent, making her flinch.

“My queen.” Ivy knelt beside her upon observing her distress. “Are you well?”

“’Tis nothing more than a passing pain.” She pressed her hand against her midsection and groaned. “The taste does not bother me, but the aroma leaves me ill. Perhaps I should have some peppermint tea.”

The maid studied her for a long moment, her sharp gaze narrowing. “I shall fetch it now.”

Ruby nodded, bracing her head in her hands. The door closed behind Ivy leaving her alone with her thoughts once more. She attempted a few more sips of the broth, but the scent became more unbearable. With a groan, she pushed it away and returned to the bed.

Lying down seemed to soothe the persistent discomfort, but removing the scent eased the churning in her abdomen even more so. Ruby rubbed her hand over her stomach. A tendril of fear crept into the back of her mind.

When Ivy returned, she urged Ruby to sit up in bed and made her comfortable by propping cushions around her before providing the steaming mug of tea. The pungent mint immediately soothed her. It brought memories of her childhood with Marian and Guy to the surface. A tendril of homesickness wove around her heart constricting it. How she missed them. Perhaps she should send for Marian to come visit. She possessed ways to ease her concerns when all others failed.

“My queen, I hope this is not forward of me, but I am concerned for your health.” Ivy met her gaze directly. “Shall I send for a healer? Or perhaps the Queen Mother?”

Ruby sipped the tea. “I appreciate your concern, Ivy. But I do not wish to cause anyone undue worry on my account. I am perfectly well.”

Ivy fidgeted with the hem of her kirtle but her gaze remained steady. “Ma’am, ’tis possible you are with child.”

Hearing the words aloud voiced the fear she refused to acknowledge. Ruby pinched her eyes closed and conceded. “Aye. ’Tis a strong possibility.”

“Such news should be cause for celebration, should it not?” Ivy asked, her green eyes bright. “The king will be overjoyed at the news of an heir. The whole kingdom will celebrate!”

Ruby grasped Ivy’s hand and held it tight. Fear pulsed through her, threatening to tear her in two. “Promise me you will tell no one. Not a soul. Not until…well, until I am certain.”

Ivy took her hands between her own, her expression softening. “I promise, my queen.” A frown pulled at her mouth. “But you must at least inform the Queen Mother. She will understand your plight.”

“I will think on it.” Ruby swallowed hard not allowing herself to consider the implications of the conversation with Vivienne. “I do not wish to give her false hope.”

“A child is a blessing.” Ivy smiled, and her face transformed, revealing a hidden beauty.

“Aye.” Ruby took another sip of her tea. How had such a lovely maid escaped the notice of every man in the castle? The passing thought made her pause, but she pushed it away.

A child would be a blessing if only she could be certain of who the father was. Even though she had been faithful to Crispin, one night created chaos and conflict in her mind. Her body warmed at the memory of being blindfolded. The touch of two men. The pleasure they wrought with little effort. And the shame that stalked her every day since.

She hung her head. Could it be possible this child belongs not to the king but to his closest friend and confidant? The thought alone left her filled with a writhing agony. What if the truth somehow emerged? Was it not treason to betray the king? To tarnish the monarchy with this blatant infidelity. Would Crispin consider such a revelation treason?

“All will be well.” Ivy took the cup from her hands and set it on the bedside table. “You will see. The king will return soon and all will be well.”

“I do hope so.” Ruby settled back against the cushions and closed her eyes.

“If you require anything, I shall be in the kitchens.” Ivy retrieved the tray with the bowl of uneaten broth.

“Grammercy, Ivy. You have been a gift from heaven during the king’s absence.”

“I live to serve you, my queen.” Ivy bowed and left the room.

 “What am I to do?” Ruby whispered against the coverlet, clutching the fabric tight. The sound dissolved in the empty room. “I cannot tell Crispin. I cannot tell Vivienne. Where else can I turn?”

Panic consumed her in waves. Slowly it pulled her down into the darkness of her deepest fears. If this child were not truly the heir of Meradin, what horrors would Crispin unleash upon her? Even though the events of that night were of his ministrations, his command, would he still blame her for fostering a bastard in her womb? She buried her face against the cushions.

Unable to quell the rising panic, Ruby rose from the bed and darted into the hallway. With determined steps, she wandered the corridors until she located Mina, her young maid, outside the king’s presence chamber.

“Fetch the swordsmith’s apprentice, Matthew. Have him meet me in my chambers. Quickly.” Ruby kept her voice low.

With a nod, Mina darted down the hallway and around the corner.

Ruby returned to her chamber and paced the floor near the window overlooking the inner bailey. The autumn wind rattled the thick pane of glass. Her hand settled on the curve of her stomach. Truth be told, whoever the father of this child, she would treasure it regardless. She would defend and protect it until her dying day.

A knock at the door shook her from her thoughts, and she bid them enter.

“You summoned me, your majesty?” Matthew bowed low. His young face smeared with dust and dirt. His rough hands twisted his cap.

“Aye, Matthew. I require you to travel to my mother’s cottage and bring her to the castle post haste.” A calm settled in the depths of her soul as she issued the directive.

“At once, ma’am.” Matthew bowed once more and retreated from the room.

Ruby detested using the young man as her own personal messenger, but she trusted no one more than she did the young blacksmith. She came to the aid of his family on multiple occasions and gave him a position within the castle to ensure his family a comfortable life. In response, they swore fealty to her. A fact she chose not to exploit. However, in her desperation, she required someone who could be trusted completely and knew where to find Marian.

Until she spoke to her mother, she would remain in her chamber. Vivienne would certainly be understanding and supportive if she chose to trust her with this revelation, but she required the comfort and advice of a woman who knew the depths of her soul like no one else.

Marian would know what path to take. How to best reveal the news to Crispin and the kingdom. But this conversation would entail revealing the sinful details of the night of passion spent with both Henry and her husband. Could she face the shame of revealing such information to her mother?

She bit her lip. Perhaps she had been hasty in summoning Marian, but it was too late. She would need to reveal the truth sooner or later. If anyone could understand without passing judgment, it would be her mother.

After retrieving her now cold tea, she settled before the hearth and stared into the flames. The moments drifted away until the sun set beyond the window and darkness filled her chamber. When Ivy arrived with some bread and dried fruit, she nibbled on the fare and found it fortified her without making her ill.

Before she drifted off to sleep, Matthew arrived breathless at her door. “I did as you commanded, my queen. But the cottage was empty.”

Disappointment gripped her heart but it also gave way to relief. “My thanks, Matthew. Please find something to eat in the kitchens before returning to the smithy.”

“Many thanks, ma’am.” His youthful grin infected her with hope.

Once Matthew took his leave, Ruby prepared for bed. On the morrow, she would visit her mother. Crispin was not present to dictate the boundaries of her royal prison and determine whether she could leave the castle grounds. She would take two guards and make the journey without incident.

For the first time in weeks, a sense of peace settled over her. Perhaps she merely needed to escape the confines of these stone walls. Ruby could not run forever, but she could embrace the opportunity to forget for a while.

Comforted by her plan, Ruby nestled beneath the blankets. Soon Crispin would return, turning her whole world upside down once more. While she longed for his return and the comfort of his touch, his presence hung like a shadow over the castle.

In truth, they were still so little acquainted and newlywed. There was still much to learn from and about one another. But one thing she knew for certain. She would never be able to keep a secret from the King of Meradin. Especially not one with such monumental consequences.


Thanks for reading!

Love,

Jen Bradlee

Are you in the Mood?

I need to talk about my new favorite thing. Okay, well, it’s not really a new concept, but it is to me.

Anyway…I’ve started making mood boards for each of my books. It helps me get a better picture of the story, the characters, and the overall vibe of the story itself. I started making them in 2020 when I wrote A Lockdown Love Affair, and I never stopped. At some point, I’d like to go back and make some for my previous historical romances, but I just don’t have the time to do that at the moment. Put it on my never ending list of things to do.

Here are my mood boards so far. Let me know if one catches your eye…

What do you think? Do they catch your attention? I know they help me stay focused on the story I’m writing. Just a disclaimer, I’m currently working on Can’t Fight This Feeling. The rest of the books in my 1985 series, She Gives Love a Bad Name, Owner of a Lonely Heart, and Just What I Needed will be releasing next year. So I hope you’re ready for some retro romance. It’s not historical and it’s not contemporary…it’s the 80s baby!

I hope you enjoyed this little visual trip into my writer’s brain. Careful, it’s easy to get lost in there. xoxo

Which mood board is your favorite? Tell me in the comments.

All my love,

Kirsten

Teaser: His Wicked Whispers

Crispin has commanded your presence. Will you deny him?

Here is a sneak peek at the first book of the infamous Prince of Whispers. I’ve listed some content forewarnings at the bottom of the page. This prince isn’t for everyone. Please proceed with caution. No readers under 18 years old. (This excerpt contains explicit language, adult situations, and violence.) Releases on May 10th.

The dirt and stones scuffed his boots as he ambled down the moonlit road. Where are you when I need you, Henry? Crispin lost patience two villages ago. He had been denied a horse, so he walked from the castle he once claimed as his home. The villages near the castle knew his face, so he had wandered into the night in a dark state of mind knowing he must find shelter far from the familiar.

The glimmer of lantern light through the trees signaled a village. He sighed. Hopefully, this one had a whorehouse. He needed a warm body and a good fuck to ease his tension. He rolled his shoulders. A bath would not be remiss, either. Perhaps he could charm one from the wench he intended to persuade to share his bed. Crispin had not checked his coin, but he thought it would be wisest to save what he could.

Crispin grinned when he saw the telltale sign of a brothel. He slipped in the door and took an empty seat by the fire, waiting for service. One of the wenches approached him, sliding her hand up his arm and over his shoulder.

“What can I do for you, love?” she asked, her voice husky. She was plump and ripe, her reddened lips begging with a soft pout.

“I shall take an ale and whatever else you are offering.” He charmed her with a smile.

The wench slid into his lap and toyed with the hair curling at the nape of his neck. “With a smile like yours, ’tis a wonder you have to pay for women to grace your bed.”

“Perhaps I tire of the games that requires.” He slid his hand along her hip, under her skirt. “How about you retrieve my drink,” he whispered as she leaned against him. His fingertips glided over her cleft. “Then I can show you what other games I know.”

She moaned as he touched her. Wet and willing. He smiled. She would suit his purposes quite nicely. He removed his hand and helped her stand. She wobbled a moment before disappearing into the back to fetch his drink.

Crispin glanced around the room. Men and women mingled in various stages of undress. He chuckled. It was almost freeing for once in his life to be in a room and not be the center of attention. He noted the women’s sly looks in his direction. He grinned. Perhaps this would not be so bad after all.

The wench returned, handing him a goblet filled with amber liquid. He took the drink and downed it in one swallow. He reached up to pull the woman into his lap when she was suddenly snatched away.

“Oi, let me go,” she demanded, pulling against a tall, brawny man’s hold. He had a scar running along his right cheek and a dangerous gleam in his eyes.

“You are mine tonight.” He pulled her tight against him, his voice harsh and demanding.

“I am otherwise occupied.” She tried to jerk from his grip, but he brought her up short.

Before Crispin could interject, the back of the man’s hand connected with the woman’s face, knocking her to the floor. Eyes wide, she clutched at her cheek and scurried backward away from them both.

Crispin stood, infused with rage. Such an action was not to be tolerated. “Leave her!”

The whole room fell silent.

The man turned to Crispin, rage contorting his face. “What did you say?”

“I told you to leave her alone.” Crispin rested his hand on his dagger. “She is with me.”

“She is my whore.” The man spat on the floor. “Stay out of it.”

“Do you belong to him?” Crispin addressed the cowering woman on the floor. She shook her head vehemently. He glanced back at the man. “Seems like the lady disagrees with you.”

“Lady? She is a fucking whore.” His guffaw echoed through the room.

“That does not mean she deserves any less respect.” Crispin’s body pulled tight in response to the tension brewing in the room as it readied for a fight. He licked his lips. “Get out.”

“Who do you think you are barking orders and issuing commands? The king?”

Crispin thrust his jaw out. He grew tired of the man’s insolence. In one swift motion, he twisted the man’s arm behind him and threw his weight into his back, sending him crashing to the floor. When the man scrambled to get up, Crispin kicked his backside, knocking him over again. As the interloper attempted to stand, two men came up to them.

“Janos, go home. You have had enough to drink tonight,” one of them said. The other reached for the hulking brute’s arm, but he jerked it from his grasp.

“You and I have a debt to settle.” He pointed at Crispin then stumbled out of the building. The other two men followed him, making sure he had gone.

Crispin offered his hand to the wench, helping her to her feet. He gently moved her hand and saw the red welt below her eye where the brute had struck her. He clenched his teeth.

“Are you well?” His soft question made her relax beneath his touch.

“Aye,” she replied with a shaky smile. “You saved me. I thank you.”

“I can think of another way for you to show me your thanks.” Crispin slid his hand over the top of her breasts, cradling one in his palm. She moaned as she met his gaze.

“Of course, good sir.” She licked her lips. “It would be my pleasure.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him toward the stairs.

A hand clamped down on Crispin’s shoulder. He turned, coming face to face with one of the men who had tossed out the rabble.

“We are going to need you to leave as well, sir.” His stern tone invited no argument.

“You cannot be serious.” Crispin shook his head in disbelief. “Can I not at least reap the reward for rescuing this fair wench?”

“Not unless you would have me summon the sheriff. We cannot allow such troublesome clients to remain in our establishment.”

Crispin bit his tongue before he betrayed his true identity. It would not do for him to be cast from his father’s house, a whorehouse, and his homeland in a single night. He swallowed his scathing retort and turned to the wench clinging to his arm.

“My regrets, darling. It seems I must take my leave.” He pulled her in for a kiss, tasting what might have been, and released her. She pouted, the disappointment evident in her expression.

“I believe I can find my way out.” Crispin glanced at the men moving to follow him. He walked out the door, drawing it closed behind him.

The night lay shrouded with a thick, misty fog, dimming the glow of the lanterns outside the brothel and encircling the rest of the small village. He ran his hand through his hair. So much for a willing woman and a warm bed. Agitated, he ruffled his hair again.

Crispin stepped down onto the street when four men stepped from the darkness, surrounding him. The two flanking him grabbed his arms, while the third wrapped his arm around Crispin’s throat from behind. He thrashed against their grasp, but they were huge, hulking beasts. He was outmanned and outmaneuvered. God’s blood, teeth, and bones.

“You and I have unfinished business,” the fourth man said, stepping into the light, allowing Crispin to see his face.

“You bloody bastard.” Crispin struggled against their hold. “I will have your head for this. Do you have any idea who I am?”

“The pompous arse who stole my whore.” Contempt dripped from the man’s words. “I do not give a cock’s crow who you are.” He threw a punch, and it landed in Crispin’s stomach, knocking the air from his chest. “But you are going to pay.”

Crispin jerked, trying to break free, wheezing. The man holding his head released him but stood like a solid stone wall against his back. He had to defend himself, but there were too many of them and they were far too strong for him to take them on alone. Three more blows landed in succession, two to his midsection and one cracking across his jaw. Pain shot through him as the warm, metallic tang of blood filled his mouth.

“That the best you got?” Crispin spat. He knew it would only enrage the beast more, but he never backed down, even in the most hopeless situations.

The man threw another punch, square in the chest over his heart. Crispin thought it ceased beating with the blow. The world spun as he gasped for breath, doubling over. The men held him steady. Crispin coughed, spewing blood onto the man’s shoes. The assailant grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his head back. He winced before narrowing his gaze. Never show weakness.

 A yelp of pain from the man on his right was followed by Crispin’s sudden release. A moment later, the second man released him, clutching at his arm as he stumbled backward. The man behind them backed away as if sensing something was not right. Crispin stumbled forward, trying to catch his breath. His eyes watered from the pain throbbing in his head. He glanced up and saw the man who had been pummeling him standing as still as a marble statue. The shaft of an arrow glinted in the lamp light from where it protruded from the man’s chest. The beast pitched forward, and Crispin scrambled out of the way, slamming onto his back on the ground.

He lay there, staring up into the starlit night catching his breath. A figure stepped into his view wearing a dark cloak with the hood pulled up.

“Are you going to lay there and bleed?”

Crispin’s head pounded. Those blows must have affected him more than he had thought. Was it a woman’s voice? Surely not. He tried to sit up and wobbled at the motion.

“Help me up, damn you.” He held out his hand.

With a derisive snort, the cloaked savior helped him to his feet. Crispin draped his arm across the man’s shoulder, steadying himself.

“Come, we must away before the soldiers arrive.” The stranger’s voice was strong and steady, but it most definitely belonged to a woman.

“Wait.” Crispin protested, but the stranger pulled him deeper into the shadows.

“There is no time.” His savior helped him onto her horse then swung up into the saddle behind him. With a nudge, the beast was off, hurtling through the darkness. Crispin’s head ached. The jolting pace of the horse did nothing to ease his discomfort, but it could have been worse. The stranger’s arms around him made him acutely aware of the lithe body pressed against his back. It was a woman, he would stake his life on it. In silence, they rode into the night away from the village. He would demand answers once they reached wherever the hell they were headed if he survived the ride.

Content Forewarnings for His Wicked Whispers: Morally Gray Hero, Jealous/Manipulative Hero, Questionable Menage, Dubious Consent, Light Bondage, Explicit Sex Scenes, and Mature/Graphic Language.