CHAPTER ONE

London, 1812

Gemma Lancaster held her breath and stood perfectly still as if that would make her invisible. It wasn’t a good strategy. She knew this. But the only other option was gathering enough courage to pry one of her eyelids open to see who had come into the room.

It took her a few seconds, but when she did she regretted it immediately. Of all people, it had to be him.

“Bloody Hell,” Lucas Stone, Earl of Winchester, muttered into the quiet of the darkened library.

A similar, though slightly more lady-like, sentiment was about to slip from her own lips but it died at the sound of laughter right outside the door. More company. Brilliant. Exactly what she needed.

This time, though, Gemma kept her wits about her and dashed toward the heavy curtains that flanked a large window behind the desk. Her triumph was doused by alarm when she turned to find Lord Winchester a half-step behind her.

“Find your own spot!” she whispered, swatting ineffectively at his shoulders.

“Too late,” he said as he pulled the thick velvet curtain around them. Gemma sucked in air as every inch of her body pressed up against his, but she had to admit he was right when the door swung open mere seconds later. At least it wasn’t the owner of the room who had discovered her. She was not quite sure that an excuse of getting lost on her way to the ladies’ withdrawing room would have sufficed if it had been their host, Lord Howard, who had pulled back the curtain.

She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the strong, muscled legs now imprisoning her own as indecipherable whispers and groans filled the air around them. From the sounds coming from the other side of the curtain, an amorous couple had entered the library for an intimate interlude. Gemma hoped they would not be long, and she tried to shift her body so that less of her was against so much of him.

“If you wish to make this less embarrassing for both of us, you will want to stop squirming,” the earl murmured, his warm breath tickling her ear. She immediately froze as warmth rushed to her face.

Gemma cursed the fates that had landed her in her current predicament. Of course it was Lord Winchester who now pressed her back into the wall. Of course it was the devilishly handsome gentleman whom she had not been able to shake for the past two weeks, ever since they’d met at the Dorchester ball. Of course it was the one person of the ton who saw past the disguise of dowdy gowns, spectacles, and boring conversation she had cultivated so carefully. To the rest of the glittering butterflies that flitted through society, she was a mousey nobody. But with those piercing eyes, he seemed to see beyond the facade.

She was not sure what had captured his attention. She was not the type to attract suitors under the best of circumstances. Her unfashionable, unruly red hair alone was enough to deter any eligible gentleman. She had also long ago given up the hope that she was a late bloomer, and she was coming to—not terms with, perhaps, but maybe acceptance of—her boyish figure. She was well aware that she was never going to be the type of woman to turn heads when she walked into a ballroom.

No, she did not know why she had piqued the interest of one of the ton’s most eligible gentlemen, but she did know she was growing to resent the very sight of him. When he was watching her, it was difficult to sneak off without notice, which was a crucial element of her plan and instrumental to its success.

She had so carefully planned every detail. When the darkness of grief had threatened like an angry thundercloud, she had researched. When she’d become discouraged by the lack of clues, she’d made lists. When her rational side insisted she was mad for pursuing vengeance, whispering that it could only bring ruin, she’d mapped out the finances she would need to be successful. She had planned every detail. But she hadn’t planned on him.

None of that mattered now, though. What mattered was not being discovered in this compromising position, and finding out exactly why he had intruded upon her hiding space.

Why couldn’t he be like the other dandies who frequented the balls and society affairs? Why did he have to be a constant distraction from her plan? So much so that she now stood hidden, literally between a wall and a hard place. She now had firsthand knowledge that he did not need the padding the other young bucks used to build up their frame.

He was all muscle, a fact of which she was uncomfortably aware with his arms wrapped like steel bands around her. His black-as-night hair was overgrown, but she could tell it was not for fashion’s sake. A lock of it fell over into his sharp green eyes, and she itched to push it back behind his ear. It was not just his looks that drew her, though. It was something more than that. Something she had not quite been able to put her finger on since she’d first seen him that night of Lord Dorchester’s ball.

A grunt followed a loud thud, bringing Gemma back to her current predicament. She imagined that the unseen pair had knocked the heavy crystal decanter she’d seen earlier onto the thick Persian rug.

“Is that it?” An outraged female’s voice sounded in a sharp staccato against the sudden silence. “Really, Reginald, I could have had a better go at it with my coachman. I cannot believe I wasted my time with this. You are no better than a rutting schoolboy.”

“But Sylvie…”

“No.” There was a rustle of skirts then the muffled tread of footsteps. “We’re through here.”

Gemma listened for the man to leave, but he was still uttering oaths about his departed partner.

After what seemed like an eternity, but which was probably only a minute or two, the man collected himself enough to storm out of the library, a rush of noise from the ballroom tumbling into the room before growing dim again.

Gemma waited a beat in the renewed hush and then placed her hands on Lord Winchester and gave him her best shove. He didn’t budge, just squinted down at her fingers, which were now resting on his chest, then back at her. Heat radiated into her fingertips, and she struggled not to blush again, having done so more in the past ten minutes than in all her life previously. But since he did seem to be remaining cautious rather than deliberately torturing her, she picked a spot above his shoulder and stared at it as his scent drifted over her.

Sandalwood.

“I believe they are gone for good,” he said, finally stepping out from their hiding place. He glanced around, as though confirming his statement, before turning back to her. He clasped his hands behind his back and towered over her. He was trying to intimidate her, she was certain. Well, he clearly did not realize with whom he was dealing.

“Now,” he said, the epitome of an arrogant, demanding lord. “Explain yourself.”

What? She’d been here first. If anyone had any explaining to do, it was he. After all, he’d disrupted her search of the library.

“Excuse me?” uttered the little creature in front of Lucas. She was the picture of disgruntlement, her eyes blazing and cheeks flushed. She all but stomped her foot on the ground.

Lucas ignored the question, not quite sure what to make of the evening, only knowing that when he’d opened the door to the library and seen her there, part of him hadn’t been surprised. He’d known Gemma Lancaster had secrets.

A sudden thought struck him, however, and for a reason he could not quite name, it did not settle easily in his mind. “Should we be expecting other company?” he asked, watching her face in the semi-darkness. “Were you meeting someone here?”

A tiny gasp escaped her rosy lips. If possible, she looked even more outraged than she had a moment ago. Her reaction answered at least one question: she was not using the library as a quiet place for a lovers’ tryst.

He admitted to himself why it mattered when the memory of her small, soft body snug up against him made his tighten. He had fought the overwhelming urge to bury his face in her hair when her subtle scent had perfumed the air around them. It was nothing like those expensive fragrances many of the ladies chose to douse themselves in. She smelled of soap and fresh air. Looking down at her animated face now, he wanted to pull her to him and kiss the vexation from her pursed lips.

Lilting notes from the ballroom permeated through the heavy door, and he remembered why he was in a dark library with Gemma Lancaster.

Not the time for fantasies. No matter how tempting.

“Never mind.” He turned abruptly from her. She might be annoyed with his manners, or lack thereof, but she would be a trifle more than that if they were discovered together. And so would he. He would not endure the kind of forced marriage that had destroyed his parents. He went back to scanning Howard’s library. It was well used, not one of the more fashionable, decorative libraries favored by the dandies of the ton. Dark, leather-bound books filled every space on the mahogany shelves.

He pulled up an image of Lord Howard in his mind and tried to picture him as the blackmailer he sought. It didn’t fit. Howard was a stocky, balding man in his early fifties. He mostly concerned himself with his books and his hounds. Lucas couldn’t remember a conversation with the man that hadn’t revolved around the latest agricultural techniques. Still, appearances could be deceiving, he thought with an amused glance at Gemma. He switched his attention from the books to the paintings. There were three in the limited blank spaces on the walls.

Two strides brought him to the first, an innocuous landscape of Cornwall. He tipped the frame gently. Just a wall, nothing behind it. He repeated the move on the second one. Nothing. That left the hounds behind Howard’s desk.

Of course.

He eyed the gold frame as he walked closer. Heavy, but not impossible. He gripped the edges and lifted it to the ground.

“Ah, lovely,” he whispered as he stared at the safe tucked into the wall. He was in luck; he knew the type. The designer was a good friend from Eton and a fellow gentleman in the service of his country. They had practiced many a night on just this type of safe.

“Are you a thief?” Miss Lancaster’s crisp voice broke his concentration. He’d forgotten she was there for a moment. He had always been able to focus in even the most distracting circumstances. He turned to look at her. Distracting, indeed.

He found it interesting that her tone had not been accusatory, merely curious. She did not even appear overanxious as she observed him. There were plenty of ladies of his acquaintance who would be clutching for their smelling salts after the events of the evening thus far.

“What would you do if I answered in the affirmative?” He was partly deflecting and partly curious. If she had known him well, he would be insulted at her question, but considering he was about to break into the library safe of a lord of the realm, he didn’t have much ground to stand on. However, she was unmarried and skulking about in a darkened room with a gentleman. She didn’t have the higher ground, either.

“Well…” She bit her lip. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “Could you look for an item for me? I don’t want to steal it…I just need to know.”

“Ah,” he said, a few missing pieces clicking into place. Maybe that’s why she was always slipping out of ballrooms and musicales. He had noticed but had not wanted to dwell on the reason for it. “You are expecting to find a particular item, then?”

“Perhaps. It’s a pocket watch. Gold, inscribed. Are you able to get into the safe?” She slipped closer to him, peering over his shoulder at the formidable door.

He threw her a curt nod. “How were you planning on perusing the contents if I had not come along and been so obliging?”

“I have my ways.”

No, she was not near fainting. He wanted to pursue the line of inquiry, but first he had to get them out of here as quickly as possible. He turned his attention back to the lovely puzzle in front of him and stroked the door with one hand as he removed the tools from his coat pockets with the other.

“A thief who comes prepared,” Gemma commented.

“Of course. You never know when you’ll need to come to a lady’s aid and break into a safe,” he said without looking at her. “Ah, that’s it,” he murmured as he slipped his tools into the lock. He continued his soft coaxing until he felt a pull of satisfaction as the final tumbler gave way, and the safe relinquished her secrets.

“Well, it clearly is not your first time. Impressive, my lord,” she said as he popped open the door.

“I’ve heard that before,” he said, amused at her quiet intake of breath.

But that humor was quickly doused by disappointment: save for a few baubles and a stack of pound notes, the safe was empty. Not unexpected, but frustrating nonetheless.

“Oh.” Her face fell for a brief moment when he turned with outstretched hands to show her what he’d discovered. Lucas braced himself for tears, but she simply nodded once and composed herself. Curiosity, tinged with a bit of admiration he couldn’t deny, tugged at him.

Later.

He would get answers from her before the night was out, but for now it was time to remove them both from the library. He replaced the items and the painting in their rightful places. After a cursory search of the desk, he felt satisfied that he could mark Howard off his list. He took Gemma’s arm, ignoring her dissent, and guided her to the door that would lead her back to the ballroom.

Speaking over her protests, he said, “Here is what we will do. You’ll make your way back to the ballroom, and after a few moments issue your excuses. You came with your aunt, yes?” He didn’t need it confirmed. He’d noticed them when they had made their appearance, the vivacious Rosalind, Lady Andrews, and her dowdy niece of a cousin twice removed. He was never quite able to lock down the exact connection when he asked, but he always noted when they arrived. “You have a headache, so you’ll take her carriage home and send it back for her.”

He didn’t wait for her answer, just nudged her out the door, closed it in her face, and then walked to the exit that would take him outside to the terrace. He would skirt the house and be waiting in Lady Andrews’s carriage, with the coachman none the wiser. He was rusty when it came to this stealth game, but some skills he would never lose.

“Rude, insufferable man,” Gemma muttered at the door in her face. She glared as though she could see the earl in all of his arrogance standing just beyond the wood.

She could not blame him entirely for her foul mood, but it felt better to focus on the anger instead of the disappointment. This whole night had been one unpredictable mess after another. At least she could cross one more off her dwindling list of suspects. She had not had much hope, anyway, but no lead was too obscure to rule out at this point. Because they were all obscure.

As she made her way toward the noise of people and music, she thought of all that Rosalind had told her about Lord Winchester. Standoffish. Rarely in town for the Season. Intelligent. Arrogant. She scoffed. She could tell all of that within a minute of meeting the man, and nothing in their conversations since had changed her mind. Rich as Midas came to mind. Which made her pause and reevaluate her lord-thief assumption. But many in the town were not what they appeared, she had come to realize. In her snooping, she’d found many a seemingly well-to-do family on the edge of financial ruin. He’d put the jewels back, though, without much of a glance. She did not think she’d been the reason for him not taking them—he was the type to do what he wanted, regardless of her opinion.

She reached the edges of the crowd and scanned the gathering. It was a crush, and she imagined Lady Howard was preening over the turnout. Her aunt, though, was no fading wallflower, and Gemma spotted her bright chartreuse gown and followed the unladylike—but completely delightful and infectious—laugh. Rosalind was not the type to mask her enjoyment with ennui, as was so fashionable. And thus, she was always the life of the party.

Gemma made what she hoped was a delicate gesture to get Rosalind’s attention, though she probably failed miserably. Uncle Artie had taught her many things, but the artful ways of society had not been one of them.

She stood off to the side while Rosalind disengaged herself from her many male admirers.

“Did you find anything, dear?” Rosalind asked without any preamble.

“No,” Gemma told her, glancing around to make sure they were not overheard. She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “But the night has taken a startling turn.”

Rosalind took Gemma’s hand, immediately worried. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Did something happen in your search?”

“Yes,” Gemma said, knowing she did not have time to explain and that it would kill her aunt not to know. It would be a minor miracle if she could persuade Rosalind not to trail her out to the street. “I will tell you everything as soon as possible, but for now I must take the carriage to the house. I will send it back for you. All is well, I just need to leave with some urgency.”

Rosalind gave her a hard look, and Gemma wondered if she should have told the headache lie.

“Someone might notice…and talk,” Rosalind warned. Her aunt was constantly torn between shielding Gemma’s reputation and helping with her investigation. It could have been worse. She could have been stuck with a stickler for all of society’s absurd, restrictive rules for ladies.

“I doubt anyone will even realize I’m not here,” Gemma said. In fact, that was part of their scheme: to make sure as few people as possible paid attention to her. It was why she dressed in unflattering, colorless gowns, wore fake spectacles, and tried not to say more than one or two words to anyone attempting conversation with her. No one ever paid her a bit of mind.

Except Lord Winchester.

“Just be careful, dear heart.” Rosalind squeezed her hand once before turning back to her crowd of admirers. “I am positively parched,” her aunt told them, and they all but fell over themselves to secure the honor of procuring her a refreshment.

“Thank you,” Gemma whispered to her aunt’s back, and she faded into the crowd. No one gave her a second glance.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Rosalind’s carriage pulled up to the steps.

Would Lord Winchester be inside?

Unexpected nerves fluttered along her insides, and she stumbled as she reached the driver. Did she really want to keep tempting fate by being alone in dark places with him? Not only was her reputation at stake, but his ability to see past her disguise simultaneously intrigued and frightened her. It also put her mission in jeopardy, and she refused to fail Nigel in this. Accepting John’s proffered hand, she climbed into the monstrosity Rosalind insisted on taking about town. The thing was more suited for old country roads, but Rosalind would have her way.

The shadows didn’t shift until the door closed behind her. She didn’t care to admit it, but she almost let out a small shriek as Lucas’s sharply contoured face emerged in the moonlight. He reached across and tugged the curtains shut, blocking out prying eyes.

“My lord, you are quite skilled in clandestine affairs. I didn’t even notice you in the dark there, and I knew to look for you,” she said, her hand still covering her racing heart. Lucas lounged in the corner of the seat, one leg propped on the opposite bench, much too close to her skirts. His sleek dark hair and green eyes gave him the appearance of a panther holding deceptively still during a hunt.

Does that make me his prey?

“That is the point, my dear,” he said, his voice low enough that she had to lean forward to hear him. She remembered the coachman not too far away from them. The driver was discreet, as was fitting for how well Rosalind paid him, but even the most careful person could slip at times. She had to remember to keep her wits about her.

“Now,” Lucas said, “I believe you are about to tell me just exactly what you were doing in Lord Howard’s library tonight.”

She narrowed her eyes. She’d followed his plan out of curiosity, and out of the hope that perhaps he would be a help to her. But she’d had about all she could take of his autocratic demands. She smiled at him sweetly.

“Why…hunting a murderer, sir. What was it that you were doing?”

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Writing Group: November 2016 Prompt

This month’s writing group was our one year anniversary and it was absolutely as lovely and wonderful as always. We celebrated our unending support and encouragement for each other with wine and fries and it was delightful. Yay us!

This week’s prompt was from a poem that I absolutely fell in love with (An Almost Made Up Poem – by Charles Bukowski) and there’s the coolest line in it: “She’s mad, but she’s magic; there’s no lie in her fire.” (S/n was considering it as my next tattoo but I slept on it.) One of my ladies worked it into her current book that’s a WIP and the other just polished off her play. They were both great! Mine’s just a shortie I dashed off in not that much time, but it was fun to write 🙂 enjoy! here’s to another year!!

Sawyer had been saying the words since before she had any idea what they meant. It was a call and response she’d learned when she’d played at her mother’s feet in their small, cramped kitchen.

“She’s mad but she’s magic,” her mother would say, sometimes cutting into her own ramblings about the sage and rosemary she’d grown in her little windowsill box to add to the broth of their “soup” so it would taste like something other than hot water.

“There’s no lie in her fire,” Sawyer would respond, fearing the slap if she didn’t. The punishment for not answering was swift and severe.

It was also the last thought that ever passed between them. By the time Sawyer had her 16th birthday, her mother had faded into barely more than the idea of fragile bones and loose skin and haunted eyes. Sawyer would sit next to her on the cot in the space created by her curled up legs and collapsed shoulders, toweling at her feverish forehead. The wait for the end was counted in rattled breaths and the specks of blood that soaked into sweat-stained sheets.

On that night, her mother’s last, 2 a.m. crept into 3 a.m. crept into 4 a.m. and still Sawyer couldn’t let her eyes drift shut. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept instead of watching the rise and fall of her mother’s chest. In the quiet of the pre-dawn light, she could admit to herself that hope would spark anytime the movement stilled.

It was in one of those moments, when Sawyer prayed the rise and fall would not start again, that her mother gasped, pulled back from the edge by her own stubborn need to reassure herself Sawyer wouldn’t forget.

She gripped Sawyer’s wrist, the strength in her fingers surprising as she dug into the pulse point there. Her eyes were wide in the darkness, shimmering with desperation as she tried to make her lips form the words. Somehow Sawyer knew what she needed.

“She’s mad but she’s magic,” Sawyer said even though the words were not the ones that were hers. They weren’t the ones that came as easily to her mouth as breathing. They were her mother’s. Moisture gathered at the corners of Sawyer’s eyes and threatened to slip down pale cheeks at the relief she saw on her mother’s face. This was it. “There’s no lie in her fire.”

With one last nod, her mother sank back into her thin, worn pillow and then sank bank into the welcoming abyss. Sawyer had thanked God for the first and last time in her life as soon as her mother’s heart stopped beating.

Now as she stood huddled at the edges of the shadows in the alley created by the one dim streetlamp she was grateful for her mother’s insistence. It was ten years later and still the words were there, just waiting to be used. They were her comfort. Her memories.

Her Shibboleth.

She waited until the twelfth toll of the striking clock faded into nothing before she stepped into the doorway of the old man’s home. She knocked three times in rapid succession on the chipping green door marked with the number 27.

The wind picked up while she waited, cutting through her thin leather jacket. There wasn’t much she could do about it, though, as she lost her scarf last week when she’d had to duck out of the pub unexpectedly when a group of Watchmen slipped in for a pint. So she just hunched her shoulders up to protect her exposed neck and ears and counted the seconds. When she hit 60, she knocked again, four times, with pauses between each.

This time she waited 30 seconds before knocking twice. The door swung open before her knuckles even left the wood.

She found herself peering down at the tiny, withered man whose name was on everyone’s lips but whose face no one saw. Except for her.

He blinked at Sawyer through thick glasses, but his eyes were sharp despite his appearance.

For a moment they just stared at each other, and she wondered if this was the time he would turn her away. A cat somewhere nearby yowled, though, breaking the standoff and there was a slight smile at the corners of his lips when he’d noticed she’d jumped at the sound.  

“She’s mad but she’s magic,” he finally hummed, his voice all but singing the words.

She ducked her head, her heart racing. “There’s no lie in her fire.”

A Conversation: Miss Rose Wellesley & Miss Gemma Lancaster

Once my heroine Gemma Lancaster heard about the Battle of the Lords that went down a few weeks ago, she became very insistent on having a very civilized *thank you very much* chat with fellow independent lady Miss Rose Wellesley, the (clearly) most important character of How to Play the Game of Love, by Harmony Williams. Beware, it gets a tad steamy, but it’s just a tease. If you want the actual play-by-play (and I KNOW you do because whew!) pop on over and pre-order your copy today! (OK, but do it, because it’s SO good.)

Introduce yourself!

Hello! I am Miss Rose Wellesley, the heroine (and most important character) in How to Play the Game of Love. Ignore Warren. His contribution to the novel is not important. In fact, the only thing he manages to do is plant himself in my path and stop me from falling in love with a man of my choosing. With an arranged marriage looming over my head, this week is my last chance to find a husband I can love. (Not Warren.)

So delighted to make your acquaintance Miss Wellesley! I am Miss Gemma Lancaster. This Warren person sounds very frustrating indeed. Men! Why must they be so vexing? 

How long have you known your hero?

Before I attended Lady Dunlop’s Week of Love party, we’d never met. Little did I know that I have met his dear, sweet mother, who is a friend of the family.

Oh intriguing! It sounds like he did not take after her. 

What was your first impression of him?

He was dressed in nothing but his shirtsleeves and trousers, hefting a valise over his shoulder. I mistook him for a servant. He warned me not to invite him into my room, advice I took to heart.

*waves hand in front of face* Well. That certainly. Is… Whew did it just get hot in here? Moving on! 

What is the worst party game you have been forced to play?

We were subjected to a myriad of games during the Week of Love. Since I was paired with Warren for the majority of them, it’s difficult to choose the worst. (He’s so competitive and turns everything into a war!) I must say that Proposals was a singular torture. It’s hard enough to dodge a marriage proposal when the gentleman is not trying to prove he is the best at it. Also, Warren cheated.

Scoundrel! Men do tend to get in a tizzy about proposals. Not that I would know from personal experience or anything. Except that I do, and they do. 

What is your favorite part of house parties?

The ability to sneak away for a ride. I spend so much time acting the proper, demure debutante that the feeling of flying over the fields, at one with my horse, is like removing a too-tight corset and being able to breathe again.

Best feeling in the world, am I right ladies? But I know what you mean, society can be so restrictive. At times so much so that it can be overwhelming. 

You are happiest when …

When I’m in love, of course.

Aw, well I guess this is actually the best feeling in the world. Though I maintain removing a corset is an extremely close second. 

What is your biggest fear?

That I’ll enter into a cold, loveless marriage like that of my parents.

*Shivers* Terrifying. Lucas, my husband, had the same fear. 

Your hero is the kind of person who …

Thrives on a challenge, whether that challenge is to win a parlor game or to change my mind when I tell him that he is the last man I would ever dream of kissing.

Hmm, sounds like he could be kind of fun to have around?

Which trait of your hero’s do you find most admirable?

He is rather protective. Even if that has led to some…misunderstandings, he makes it known that he cares about my well-being, which is nice. And he is respectful.

The dream! Protective but respectful men are the best men. At times Lucas’ protective urges try to get the best of him, but I simply remind him that I am quite capable and he relents. It seems like you and I are of similar minds on that! 

Which most maddening?

The way he discards propriety, much the same way he discarded the clothes he wore when we first met.

*Opens fan. Waves it about* Whew I might need a play-by-play of this first meeting! *blushes*

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Love conquers all.

Always. 

Complete this sentence: Love is….

Love is like walking on air.

It is most certainly NOT the raw, hot sensation that twists my chest whenever I am subjected to Warren’s company, never mind that he dominates most of my thoughts.

No never!*leans closer* But really, I am going to need some more details.

****

You want the details? You can actually get them 🙂 Get your copy of How to Play the Game of Love and check out Harmony’s site at www.harmonywilliams.com.

HowToPlayTheGameOfLove_500.jpgWhen Miss Rose Wellesley’s father threatens an arranged marriage, she knows she’d better settle on a choice quickly or end up having no say in who she marries. Fortunately, she’s garnered a rare invitation to Lady Dunlop’s “Week of Love” house party, an annual affair notorious for matchmaking. Her plans to expedite a proposal would go smoothly if not for the brash younger sister she must chaperone, her outspoken, disagreeable best friend, and the bullish Lord Hartfell who seems determined to dog her every step.

Lord Hartfell embodies every last thing Rose dislikes in a man. He’s domineering, tenacious, argumentative, and a little too casual with his nudity for her tastes. Worst of all, Rose can’t seem to get him—or his kisses—out of her mind.

Rose is determined to find a more appropriate husband, even if her heart disagrees with how unsuitable the stubborn lord is…

 

Writing Group: October Prompt

It’s finally starting to feel like fall, which means it’s October which means writing group! Our prompt (not mine) was actually inspired by a somewhat funny story I have involving UberPool, but that is for another time … over drinks. So, yes, the prompt was UberPool very broad but opens a lot of possibilities. Mine’s a little sad, as a semi-trigger warning. Please feel free to send me yours, I’d love to read it!

All my love.

——

Miranda’s rapidly dwindling bank account would have protested, but she really should have splurged on an UberX. Instead she’d been as practical and thrifty as she had been for the first 29 years of her life and gone with the UberPool.

Normally she didn’t mind being stuck in a car with a stranger for an indeterminate amount of time. Talking to people was kind of her thing. It helped that she was genuinely interested in their stories — ones that she sometimes jotted down in the cocoa-colored battered leather journal she kept in her purse. In Des Moines, she’d met a real life Willy Loman whose advice had inspired the line, you can tell the character of a man by the way he orders pancakes (what?!). It was now scrawled in thick black sharpie just below the one in gold sparkly pen that read, life’s too short not to go commando on The Strip. That came from one particularly hunky male entertainer who performed with the Thunder From Down Under show in Vegas. She’d learned that he lived by that motto when she’d tucked her hand inside his loose sweatpants for a quick and dirty handjob that probably earned her a one-star review from the driver but had led to Mr. Down Under returning the favor in her hotel room. To a five-star rating.

One of the sadder ones had been a pregnant 16-year-old with a black eye and a chin that never seemed to drop out of its defensive tilt. Bruised little flower, Miranda had written. An exhausted boxer who’s already gone 9 rounds, and is swaying, but bracing for another.

It’s not like she was a poet or anything. She just kept collecting these little souvenirs, these memories that lived in her journal and became as important to her experience as the sights she was seeing. My daddy always said life is like a 10 dollar hooker — you never know what you’re going to get. All Miranda had to do was read that line and she was back in Austin on that street with the fairy lights dripping from the sky and the college kids spilling out of bars and that place that had shots named things like “Bubblegum Delight” and “Bohemian Raspberry.”

She wondered what she’d be jotting down about her current Uber partner and what she would remember when she read it two weeks from now. A month. Tears catch on thick black lashes, then spill into wrinkles like rain drops into broken, dried land.

The woman had been crying now for the entirety of the 15 minutes they’d been in the car, but neither of them had spoken past confirming their names to the driver. There was still at least 25 minutes left until they got to downtown Denver. Why, oh why, was the airport so far away from the city?

Her fingertips tapped a staccato beat against her journal as if it were an emotional anchor. Sadness was a tricky thing. For some it got buried beneath layers of protective tissue; for others it was a raw, gaping wound that bled and bled no matter what they did to try to stanch it. Miranda got skittish around sadness.

Running away from those situations was more her MO. It’s what she was doing now. The weird thing is she shouldn’t have been the one doing the comforting in the first place. But every time she dropped the news their faces would crumble and twist and they would try to be strong and brave for her but she’d end up soothing them. And what the fuck was that?

Not only was she shit at it, that was certainly not what she wanted to be doing in her last months.

So she’d bought a journal and filled the first page with the places she wanted to see and the rest of the pages with the people she’d met there. Maybe it was selfish, this giving of herself to strangers when she held back from her loved ones, unable to take the grief and pity in their eyes. But if ever there was a time for selfishness, this was it.

Resentment coated her throat, making it hard to swallow. Resentment toward this woman, resentment toward her pain, resentment that she should be blissing out right now to the thoughts of getting toasted in the mile-high city. And instead she was getting treated to the very thing she was trying so hard to avoid.

Is this what her mother would look like in six months time? Body wracked with silent heaves, lipstick smeared into the cracked lines near her mouth, tiny hiccups of air slipping out as if sobs took too much energy.

Why had this woman gotten an UberPool? Miranda wanted to scream the question at her. And with each passing moment as the waves of the woman’s grief battered against the walls of Miranda’s defenses, she lost the urge to bite her tongue.  

“Why…” Miranda actually started to ask. But at the sound of her voice the woman looked up and they locked eyes. Hers were forest green, deep and swimming in the liquid caught there. But it wasn’t her mother she saw in the haunted look. It was herself.

In that moment she realized she had never cried.

She’d entered immediately into some kind of optimistic haze of adventure and bucket lists and seeing America while she still could. Never had she actually grieved. Even in the darkest part of the night, right before the sun broke the horizon, when she couldn’t sleep and she found herself counting the popcorn bubbles on the ceilings of cheap motel rooms. The tears had never come.

Maybe this woman didn’t have enough money to get her own Uber. Maybe she’d been short on time and couldn’t take the train. Maybe it had been her default setting and she’d been stuck with it.

But maybe she’d just needed some human company. A warm body and a heartbeat next to her to know she wasn’t alone in this sometimes disaster of a world.

Miranda swallowed whatever she was going to say, dug for a tissue in her purse and held it out for her, laying her hand on the woman’s shoulder. She leaned in to the touch.

Seeking comfort is not weakness. Her fingers traced the words an hour later as she took another hit and tried to believe them.

Book Birthday: A Thank You Will Never Be Enough

So today is release day! One Step Behind is finally out in the world and it’s so exciting and scary and lovely and I will probably dance around my living room and drink champagne and be very messy emotionally. Starting now (with the #feels part, not the drinking part).

[But first, click here to get your copy of One Step Behind]

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Aforementioned champagne 

When I was a kid, my head was always buried in a book. It’s what I spent my babysitting money on, it’s what I asked for at Christmas, it’s where all my free time went. You get the picture. And, god, was I a sucker for a good romance novel. Happy endings were my drug, and I couldn’t get enough.

Somewhere between devouring Harry Potter and laughing along with Julia Quinn I realized how much I enjoyed stringing together sentences in just the right way. Words are so pretty and versatile and powerful and being able to play with them is one of the greatest pleasures of life.

But every time I tried to write more than a short story I would give up, move on to something else. That’s where New Year’s Eve 2014 comes in. It was an hour before midnight and my friend and I were swapping resolutions. This is the year I’m finally going to do it, I told her. I’m going to write a book. Granted, I had said this before, but it had always been to myself and never out loud. Maybe it would help hold me accountable.

The next day I came up with the opening scene to One Step Behind.

A bucket of luck, a lot of work and a fair amount of wine later and it’s heading out into the world.

One of the biggest lessons Harry Potter teaches us (I TOLD you I’m a book nerd) is that you can’t do any of it without the support of the people around you. Though my “it” here was slightly less traumatizing than fighting Voldemort, my Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, etc. all deserve huge shout outs. I couldn’t have done it without you.

From my sister who celebrated every tiny milestone with complete enthusiasm and talked me off a couple ledges; to my lovely friends who have absolutely humbled me with their outpouring of support; to my fantastically wonderful editor who pushed me and challenged me and cheered me on; to my whole Entangled team — you all are so wonderful, amazing and brilliant. Today would not have been possible without you. THANK YOU!

That doesn’t even get into the authors, bloggers and members of the book community that I’ve met along the way. What a fantastic group to be a part of.

Last, but absolutely not least, is, of course, my parents. You know, the ones who bought me Harry Potter, who nurtured my love of words, who rolled their eyes at me when I didn’t hear them because I was too immersed in a book, who encouraged me to do my best but were there for me if I fell short, who taught me persistence in the face of obstacles and so many other lessons that all add up to make me who I am today. A thank you will never be enough.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have my Leslie Knope moment and download One Step Behind onto my Kindle. You should do the same!!

All my love,

Bri

Writing Group: September Prompt

This month’s prompt was a beautiful gift — we had to write about travel. Travel! Me. The girl who has a map of the world tattooed on her foot (Fun fact, my other tattoo is of a tulip for my real one true love: Amsterdam). I was so excited. I also wanted to write a love story because — well — this is also me. The girl who loves romance. Once I’d decided on that, I let myself be extraordinarily self-indulgent and write about Harry and Louis, my OTP forever and ever. Enjoy xox

PS. Because I was procrastinating on other things i really needed to do more urgently than this, I of course wrote two other related scenes. They’re up on Archive of our Own, a lovely fan fiction forum that hosts some truly talented writers. Find them here: Love, H.

 

L — I saw this postcard and thought of you. Don’t know when you’ll get this but I think today (Aug. 23) is your first day of classes, right? Everyone will love you! Hope your dorm mate isn’t a wanker (pun intended, whaha!) — Love, H


 

L — I’m in Porto! You would love it here. There is magic in the very bones of this city. I stood atop the bridge one night with the should-be-tacky-but-aren’t lights from the port lodges on one side of the river and the rising castle on a hill that is this beautiful city on the other and all I could think of was that night. The one before I left. I miss you. — Love, H


 

L — I hope you’re happy, I’m trying email because of you. What will I do with all this space? I guess my postcards aren’t getting to you? Or you’re busy with classes? I managed to jump on Facebook at the hostel in Barcelona and saw this pic of you at the football game. You looked like you were having fun! I hope you are. Barcelona was sick. There’s this market on the main drag that sells cut up pineapple on the rind, with a little fork to eat it with. I took it to the beach, which butts right up against the loud, chaotic city blocks. The locals were walking the strip there, hawking “cerveza”s for a euro. I got one and it was disgusting and hot and the pineapple was sweet and sticky and the sand stuck into the little space between my toes and that night there was sand in my shitty little hostel bed. Because that’s Barcelona. I got up the next morning and climbed this mountain that has a ferris wheel at the top of it, right next to a church. I rode it by myself, and wished you were there to tease me about being scared. Like at the school carnival that one year. (In which I tossed my cookies when we got off.) — Love, H.


 

L — No, I totally get that. No pressure, mate. Just thought since it’s only a two-hour train ride, and you’re on break, you’d want to join for the weekend. But I get it. Exams seem tough. — H


 

L — I am writing to inform you that, no, I don’t actually love every single place I’ve been so far. I’m in this dark little restaurant in Prague that has free Wi-Fi — yay technology! — and I will tell you, the spark is just missing. The soulmate connection isn’t there. I know, I know. Everyone raves about it. This bloke on my train to Rome even told me to change my plans so I could stay here longer. But that deep knowing in the quiet place right above your heart? Well mine says Prague just ain’t my city. It has a river, and a city on a hill, and a kind of dark quaintness that is baked into every stone of its cobbled streets. But it’s not mine. You know? — Love, H.


 

L — That’s so great you finally made moves on that guy from your drama class. I’m proud of you for putting yourself out there. Wear your blue shirt on the date. It brings out your eyes. — H.

P.S. (With your black skinnies — your bum looks fantastic in them.)


 

L — OK BUT DN’T GO HOEM WIT H HIM OK?


 

L — Fuck, sorry for the email last night. We went to a club in Berlin that had wi-fi and I … just. Sorry. Sorry.


 

L — Did you know about Luxembourg? And that it’s not just a made up country? But also the most fairy-tale town you’ll ever see? Straight out of Grimm Brothers, but without all the murder and rape and fucked up evil hags. It’s soft. In my mind it’s all painted pink, even though it isn’t actually. I’ll remember it as being pink, though. Memories are weird like that aren’t they? Do you remember that night? It’s all gold to me, like champagne. Why do I remember in colors? Why are you always bright and shining in them? — Love, H.


 

L — Are you mad at me? — H


 

L — Ah, yeah I get it, term’s wrapping up. I miss talking to you every day, though. My mum thought I’d get lonely this year traveling by myself. But it’s not like that. You meet people. At hostels, at bars, in the street even. If I don’t want to be alone I don’t have to be. (Not like that, get your mind out of the gutter!) I am lonely for you though. I’ve never gone this long without talking to you. Hearing your voice. That first day we met? We were, god, like seven, right? And our mums sent us out to play and we found that tree? The big one with the carved up trunk? We added our initials then promised to be friends forever. Christ, we’d just met. I guess that’s what kids are like though? There’s none of that bullshit to get in the way. I found a tree like that. It was in the forest in a small town outside of Paris. There was an H and an L in the bark, right near its thick roots. I wanted to tell you immediately. But that was two weeks ago. Why didn’t I tell you? — Love, H


 

L – What do you mean, I’m not being fair? — H


 

L — You told me I should go??? You said I should fly like a birdie, spread my wings and see the world. Meet new people in new cities. Like I always said I wanted to.


 

L — I’m allowed to miss my best friend. I’m sorry that you don’t. — H


 

L — Probably the fact that you haven’t written in three weeks means I should leave you alone. But the thing is, I can’t.

I’m in Amsterdam. Did you know that? I’ve been trying to remember to post pics. Do you even check anymore? But, sorry, you’re right. That isn’t fair. I’ll get to that. Bear with me.

The thing is, I’m in Amsterdam and the thing is I’ve been thinking. A lot. Amsterdam is…well it’s a lot like you. Pretty. Soft. Friendly. High. Funny. (It is! You should see the coffeeshop puns!) A little sharp sometimes, when it has to be. But why Amsterdam is really like you is because it feels like home to me. There have been so many cities I’ve loved on this trip. But this one. Man. The particles of it slip into the nooks and crannies of my soul and expand into any dark and empty place that might have been there. Just like you.

I know it isn’t fair to tell you these things. Not when you have your new life, with your new friends, and your new future all mapped out, Mr. Drama Teacher. And I’m just…floating. But I’ve kind of stopped caring if it’s fair or not.

Remember that night? The night before I left. I always thought it was so obvious how much I loved you. It wasn’t like that at first, of course. But once the other boys started wanting to talk to girls, and all I ever wanted to do was talk to you, I realized. You were it for me. You always seemed to treat me like a younger brother, though. It drove me crazy. Until that night. You’d had too much of the wine that we’d snuck out to drink under the stars. Our way of saying goodbye. Your words were soft and wrapped like silk around me when you told me how much you’d miss me. When your lips drifted closer to mine. I could smell the lavender in your hair, the cherries on your tongue. But you didn’t close the distance between us. And I was too scared. Too freaking scared. So I left. Because I needed to. You know I needed to. It didn’t mean I was leaving you, L. It never meant that.

You have to know, you’re with me here. I see you all the time. In the swaying bodies in a Parisian club, in the stillness of the Portugal cliffs, in the bright blue water off the coast of Croatia. You’re with me.

I know you’ve been trying to push me away. I think you’re mad I left, and that’s OK. We were supposed to start uni together. We’d always said that. And then when the time came I just couldn’t make myself. I know you understand that. But I think you’re mad I left. Or sad. I thought you didn’t love me. I thought you telling me I should go was you saying you didn’t care enough to ask me to stay. I thought you ignoring my postcards and my emails meant you’d forgotten me. Replaced me. I thought this distance you’ve been allowing to grow between us was you telling me it was never going to happen.

But maybe it’s not? Maybe you’re protecting yourself, because you think all those same things about me? Maybe you’re as scared as I am, and maybe one of us actually has to be brave about this? I don’t know. Maybe I’m crazy.

The thing is I’m in Amsterdam. I’m in Amsterdam, the most perfect city in the world, and all I can think about is you. I’m ready to come home, Louis. If you’ll have me. — Love always, H.


 

H — Come home to me, love. — L.

Pen And Paper

There’s a certain romanticism in writing things out by hand. It can conjure up images of sparks of brilliance only just contained by ink by a writer hunched over a cafe table sipping a cappuccino in Paris … et.cet et. cet. In reality, I find it to be frustrating and unwieldy — at least when I’m trying to write a full scene.

But what I will use traditional pen and paper for is PLOTTING. I’m a mix of a plotter and a pantser. I obviously have to know where the story is going to end up but sometimes when I start writing scenes they take me in a completely different place than I had intended. Stubborn characters and all that! But as much as they love leading me on a merry chase, I have to wrangle them under control, and that’s where my writing journal comes in.

One night, I was about half-way through Book Two and I realized I had gone down enough unexpected paths that I needed to set aside time to actually sit down and adjust the original outline I’d sketched out in my head. For some reason, writing outlines on a computer does NOT work for me at all. I have flashbacks to five-paragraph essays and my 11th grade English class. *shudders* But putting pen to paper and jotting down even the key plot points for each character in my journal helps me solidify exactly what I want from them and where I want to LET them take me (instead of them running roughshod).

This may sound obvious to some of you plotters out there, but for this (mostly) pantser it took a lot to figure out how I could make outlines work for me instead of them being a chore that I had to finish before I could get to the fun stuff 😀

My current journal is red which is not my favorite, but it was free which is my favorite price — and now I have a pretty bookmark to go along with it! Tell me – are you a plotter or  a pantser? (which keeps correcting to panther, which let me tell you is pretty cool.) Check out the pic on my instagram – and say hello!!

All the love,

Bri

 

August Prompt: Writing Group

Loves –

I can’t believe it took me 10 months to write off a prompt about one of my nieces but the time was finally nigh. The prompt was mine, and it was to write about a song. Any song, any way, any POV. I immediately (OK it was like my fourth choice) thought of Shut Up Train, by Little Big Town which I used to “sing” (read: butcher) to Raegan on the reg. My writing group babes did not follow the prompt (of course) but did lovely things, as always. This was in the midst of Book Three edits (my own — OMG DID I MENTION THE FIRST DRAFT IS DONE OMG) so excuse any sloppiness. Hope everyone is having a great summer! All the love xoxo

PS narrator is me, baby is Raegan. If that helps.

PPS — what I really wanted to do was write in a “you” voice because I was scared to do it so that means I had to do it, of course. It wasn’t as hard as I thought – in this story at least.

__

“Shut up train,” I sing to you and wonder if I should be telling you to shut up. My voice is soft, if off-key, though, and loving and you’re only three weeks old anyway. So it probably won’t cause lasting psychological damage.

You blink up at me with wide blue eyes that I can’t see are blue but I know are blue. Because of the dark in the room, all they are is bottomless pits of trust and — at the moment — unhappiness. You don’t want to go to sleep. You fight it with all the energy you have in your tiny muscles. You swat at your ears and face to make yourself hurt so you don’t let yourself drift off into the welcoming abyss of slumber. “I’m trying to sleep,” I coo-sing the next line of the chorus.

You are not impressed.

My heart is racing because any second now you are going to whimper. Then cry. Then that will wake your mama and she is supposed to be getting rest. You are too, to be honest. But for now you seem content to just stare up at me. This stranger whom you met only two days ago but for some reason has you strapped to her body. And is swinging you about hoping the motion will keep you as quiet and as content as possible.

You blink heavily and I hold my breath, but don’t stop my smooth waltz around the quiet room. It’s a second bedroom or office, that’s been rigged into a nursery that you don’t sleep in anyway. No, not you. You, my love, are a fussy sleeper because this big wide world is just so new to you and you don’t want to miss a single second of it. You wage a war against it, at first a stubborn pacifist simply refusing to budge from your stance, but then a soldier in the muck of things pushing through the pain and weariness because god damnit you are not going to give up. Or give in.

“Can’t you show me a little sympathy?” I sing-plead, as the red numbers of the clock slide into the next hour with barely any acknowledgement from you.

“I give up, I give in, raise a flag, let you win,” I murmur as I sit down in the welcoming embrace of the rocking chair. I can almost see your eyes narrow as my butt hits the seat. No, this won’t do at all, you think. Must be standing. Must be moving. I hear it in your throat, the protest. I groan but I dare not make you angry. God forbid I bring the wrath of an infant down on my head. I get back up.

“Shut up train,” I hum a little louder now, hoping the vibrations from my lungs will lull you to sleep. My shoulders are starting to ache, my throat is dry, and I could not love you more.

***

Eight months later

You are not happy. That’s OK, because I am not happy either. We can be not happy together. I’m pretty sure there is actual shit leaking out of your diaper, but I don’t want to look because you are almost asleep and it’s been 45 minutes of singing and endless waltzing around the tiny floor of the one-bedroom apartment to get you even this close.

And you hate getting your diaper changed. About as much as I hate changing it. So. That’s where things stand.

I am not mama, and, what’s worse is, I am not mama and I am trying to get you to go to sleep. Which I believe we have established you hate. What’s even worse is I am not mama and I am trying to get you to go to sleep and this is a new place across the country from what you are used to. Not that you know what that even means, but you know what’s unfamiliar and this is unfamiliar.

I am unfamiliar. You will get used to me soon, my little blob, but for now I am not an anchor for you even as much as I want to be.

Maybe there’s something there. Maybe you remember “shut up train” because I’ve sung it to you every time I’ve seen your pretty face. At Christmas, at the wedding. I keep asking for sympathy that you refuse to give. That’s OK, though. I love you anyway.

I love you more now. I didn’t think that was possible. But you have this personality that glows and sparks and lights up everyone around you. You can’t even talk yet, and you have us all enraptured.

Even when you have shit seeping into the back of your onesie. Even when my hand goes numb from patting your little diapered butt til you drift off only to wake up three minutes later demanding me to keep patting you. Even when my arm muscles protest your dead weight as you slump against me and I’m too nervous to actually put you down lest you stir again.

Even as you stare up at me with eyes that are nowhere near sleepy enough, sucking on the ya-ya that I’m desperately — and at quite an awkward angle—trying to keep in your mouth so that you can soothe yourself off into dreamland.

I love you anyway. I’ll always love you anyway. Or maybe it’s, I’ll love you because. I’ll love you because you’re an obstinate beast who refuses to go quietly into that good night [of sleep]. I’ll love you because you love feeling someone’s heartbeat next to yours. I’ll love you because you’re not easy but you’re strong. I’ll love you because when you wake up you are all giggles and light and happiness as if an absolute standoff had not occurred the night before.

But for now I’ll love you because as I sing the final chorus I think I finally see your eyelashes resting against your cheeks.

I pause for a moment in the thin sliver of moonlight that sneaks into the room and rub a thumb over the soft skin of your nose. Your eyes fly open and I sigh.

“I hope you’re happy now, I’m wide awake,” I sing and it’s an admonishment to myself. Rookie mistake.

 

Catching Up

Please excuse my absence! I have been quite neglectful, but I have somewhat OK reasons. I swear. Ish. All of my edits on Book One came back — line edits, substantive edits, copy edits — and they were a beast to get through! But like awesome and fun and challenging and they made my book so much stronger than it was oh so many months ago. I think I’ll do a more extensive post about the process, but for now, that’s why I’ve been a little MIA. Plus I’m still trying to power through Book Three. Gah. It’s a paradise. It’s a war zone. Yo.

Anyway, wanted to post June and July’s prompts. Yes, we did them both and I just completely spaced on posting June’s. I would say it’s not memorable, but I really just wanted to write a fake-date-at-a-wedding story and it turned into #familydramz.

For July, the prompt was “Getting old was the most difficult thing Milo Curtis had ever done …” And neither of my writing group babes understood the ending so apparently I was way too subtle with this (in an attempt to not be heavy-handed). I laughed for days at one of their theories! I’ll just leave it here though and make of it what you will. All my love. xox

***

Getting old was the most difficult thing Milo Curtis had ever done. Not that 18 was old. Not really, in the scheme of infinity. Or even in the scheme of 80 or so good years. It felt old to Milo, though, with responsibility and adulthood and all that entailed waiting in the wings. If he wanted to go to community college at night–which he goddamn was going to do–he needed a job that paid more than shit wages and gave him real hours. He needed a place. Mom was mom and she was great, but continuing to live in her cramped apartment now that Greg had moved in was a nonstarter. And of course none of it would matter if he didn’t graduate.

But that wasn’t why it was hard. The problem was that turning 18 meant leaving Emmie behind.

The molten brown liquor was fire against his esophagus, but that didn’t stop him from tipping the bottle back again. The slide was becoming smoother, he just had to push through until his brain got to that nice fuzzy place. Where the world was a little sideways, but softer at the edges. He eyed the handle and guessed it would be about five more solid swigs.

It only took Emmie half a glass of pink wine to feel the buzz. The first time he’d seen her like that had been when they were 15 at her parents’ Christmas party. Emmie had been too scared to sneak any of the free-flowing alcohol, so he’d sent her out into the backyard. He’d  then snagged his mom’s half-drunk but forgotten glass and shoved a can of beer into the gap between the base of his spine and his jeans for himself.

Emmie’s brother was only 7 at the time so her parents had left his playground set up. It came with all the bells and whistles but the best part was the tree-house like structure at the top of the slide. It had quickly become his and Emmie’s go-to when they wanted to escape anyone’s prying eyes.

He handed over the wine before maneuvering himself into the tight quarters. They ended up facing each other, legs entangled, shoulders pressed up against unrelenting wood. It hadn’t been long, though, before damp, hot lips found his throat as she settled herself into his lap.

“Babe,” he murmured into the quiet night, fingers burying themselves in her unruly red curls.

“Do you think it will always be like this?”

“What will always be like what,” he asked, unable to keep the smile from his voice.

“Us,” she murmured, her hands clutching at the loose fabric of his T-shirt. “The way we’re on fire.”

His smile slipped and he smoothed a palm over the curvature of her spine. A shiver ran through her even though it wasn’t cold and he wrapped his arms around her, cradling her body against his. “No.”

She let out a little mewl of distress at that and he tipped her head back. “Because it’s not the fire we’ll be left with, babe. It will just be us. And that’s so much fucking better.”

She grinned, and shifted so she was straddling him, her face tipped up to the full moon. She was gorgeous to him at any time of day, but here, on a crisp December evening, bathed in starlight. Well.

“We’ll never burn out, baby,” she said, and though she was talking to the sky, she took his hand and held it against the gentle swell of her chest, right above where her heart thrummed a racing beat.

He met her eyes and they were wild and he felt something in him give. For the first time in his sometimes shitty albeit mostly average life he’d believed in something.

It hadn’t been cold that night like it was tonight. Just a hint in the air, enough to threaten goosebumps but pleasant with even just a little bit of alcohol. Tonight, though, was freezing and he hadn’t been prepared. Milo went for another round with the handle of whiskey.

We’ll never burn out, baby. She’d promised him. She’d promised him that night and he’d fucking believed her. He’d let himself believe her even though he’d known.

Maybe she thought she’d kept her end of the bargain.

It certainly felt like fire whenever he was with her. Or it did and it didn’t. Sometimes his love for her was wild and raging and wanting and needing and fingers and mouths and promises of forever. And sometimes it was a quiet certainty tucked into the space beneath his clavicle. A rainy Sunday morning instead of a cliff dive. He kind of liked those times better.

But she didn’t. It wasn’t like that for her. On her dark days she pretended he wasn’t there. He’d crawl into bed with her under a soft, white comforter, against pale yellow sheets. He’d tried curling himself around her, to help shut out the world, but she wanted none of it. So he’d just lie there, muscles bunched as if in flight or flight, for hours. It wasn’t for her. It was something he’d had to do. For himself. Their love didn’t exist for her on those days.

She lived for the moments, though, that their love was a livewire. When she was climbing into his window at 2 a.m., shaking him awake and daring him to drive four hours to get to the diner that had the best pancakes in the state. It was then pulling to the side of the road to dance in a meadow full of flowers for him while Tom Petty blasted from the speakers of the car. It was hitching her legs around his waist in the middle of the school hallway as he stumbled into lockers with her tongue down his throat.

We’ll never burn out, baby. It was almost liked she’d taken it as a dare. A challenge.

He’d passed the fuzzy stage two gulps ago, and entered into the spinning stage. He set the bottle aside, and let his shoulders fall back onto the ground. It was an ice block and he didn’t feel it. God bless whiskey.

The constellations mocked him as they blurred and danced in the dark blanket of the sky.

“Do you think when someone dies they become a star?” Emmie had asked him one summer night, their limbs all entwined on a blanket, their toes digging into the soft, cool mud of the river bank.

“I think you’re a star,” he murmured, not caring. Not caring that he was sappy or embarrassing or easy for her. For this girl who said stuff like that.

She laughed. “I think maybe when we die, we return back, you know. So that people down here know we’re up there. How do you go on otherwise? Not being able to see the person you loved every night? It’s a comfort you know.” She nodded her head against his chest, one quick movement. “Yup. That’s what happens.”

His breath stuttered. “But then you only get to see them at night, babe.”

“But they’re always there, you know,” she said, pushing up to look at his face, her forearm against this chest, her eyes urgent and searching. “You can’t see them, but they’re there. And that–that knowing–well it will get you through the days. Until you can look up to the sky and see them again.”

He didn’t want to agree. He couldn’t. So he’d kissed her instead.

He blinked hard now, and the tears that had been at the corners of his eyes spilled onto his cheeks. He checked his watch. Two minutes and twenty seconds.

Two minutes and twenty seconds until midnight. Two minutes and twenty seconds until he was 18. Two minutes and twenty seconds until he’d leave Emmie behind. Forever. He watched the hand tick closer to the inevitability and didn’t even bother to swipe at the moisture that was, left unchecked, seeping into the collar of his shirt.

One minute 33 seconds.

Fifty-seven seconds.

16 seconds.

4 seconds.

When the hand slipped past the 12 he gasped, his lungs burning, clawing for air he hadn’t realized he’d been denying himself.

Once his body stopped shuddering in relief, he pushed to his feet. He looked to the sky instead of at the gravestone when he murmured, “Still burning bright for me, babe.”

____

And here’s June’s prompt — sorry about the bad UX. The prompt was “We’re not fine.” // “No, but if anyone asks, lie and tell them we are.”

Della and Christopher

“We’re not fine.” It was stating the obvious but Della didn’t care.

“No,” Christopher said, not taking his eyes off the road. “But if anyone asks, lie and tell them we are.”

As if that would be a problem. One, she doubted anyone would notice. After six years of marriage, her family had yet to witness them out of sorts. Not because they were never out of sorts. It was just that they were such good fucking actors no one ever noticed. Two, her sisters were so oblivious to problems beyond their own they wouldn’t ask her questions about her life if she showed up with a giant fucking tattoo on her forehead.

She loved them, but they were who they were.

The warmth from the sweet potatoes she’d bought from the store then dumped into one of her own serving dishes was seeping into her black leggings, and the heat was pleasant against her thigh. She concentrated on that feeling instead of the one that made her want to curl up in ball in her seat and stop breathing until the world went away.

Tara and Josh

“Have I said thank you enough?” Tara flipped down the passenger side visor of Josh’s sporty little coupe to check her make-up. She’d watched a Kim Kardashian contouring video last night and, considering it was her first attempt at it, it wasn’t too shabby. Or at least she didn’t look like a clown or a hooker like she’d feared could be the outcome.

“I told you I don’t want words,” Josh slid her a teasing grin. “Drinks are on you for the month, right?”

She had $17 in her bank account and she still couldn’t regret the promise. “Anything.”

He laughed but didn’t take the bait to flirt. They weren’t like that. “Is your family really that awful you need a fake date as a buffer?”

Yes. But that wasn’t true, really. They weren’t awful per se. Just nosy. Judgmental. Condescending. Lovingly, of course. They looked at her life, though, and saw $17 in her bank account, instead of the fan base she was slowly building at the gallery. They saw loneliness instead of independence. They saw a teenager who’d never grown out of her rebellious phase instead of a grown ass woman.

Well, Della did at least. Della and her perfect life and her perfect job and her perfect marriage.

She shrugged at Josh, a careless tip of the shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s easier when you’re not related to them.”

Mallory

Mallory had long ago stopped bringing food to these things. The first time Della had wrinkled her pretty little patrician nose at Malloy’s attempt at roasted asparagus and almonds it had stung. The next year, when she’d conveniently forgotten to put out the pumpkin bread Mal had slaved over it felt like a little pinch at the fleshy part of her underarm. Not brutally painful, but annoying. Then in a truly amazing feat Del had slipped and dropped Mal’s mashed potatoes into the sink so that the garbage dispenser was the only one to get to try them. At that point she had no choice but to be amused by the lengths her sister would go to.

That’s when she started bringing wine.

The bottles clinked happily against each other in the green Trader Joe’s bag on the floor of her Honda when she took a left turn a little too hard.

At least this year Della wasn’t hosting. It was the only thing about their parents selling the house that she was grateful for.

Her phone buzzed in the cup holder and she chanced a glance. A text on their group thread. She fumbled for the cell without looking down from the road, and the buzzing continued even when she had it firmly in hand. Whatever they were saying wasn’t worth risking death over, though, so she waited until she pulled to a stop at a red.

Della:

Ladies — don’t forget Christopher and I are picking up the ham on the way to mom and dad’s … Mal did you remember the wine? Should we get some? 

We can get some.

Tara did you get the gift wrapped? Should we stop for wrapping paper. Let me know.

See you soon xx

Tara:

Relax Del. Present is wrapped and ready to go and they’re going to love it!!!

Can’t wait for you guys to meet Josh!!!

Mal typed in a quick “We’re set on wine,” before the light flipped back to green.

She gunned the engine and was eternally grateful she’d decided to get those two extra bottles.

***