Sunday, September 15, 2019

Release Day!

Need something to do besides watching football on a Sunday? Ghouls in the Grocery Store is out! The penultimate chapter of the Bloodlines saga focuses on Tiffany Stephens and her daughter Ellie after the tragic events of Sacrificed.

GHOULS IN THE GROCERY STORE

After the murder of her husband by enemies of her uncle’s coven, Tiffany Stephens wants a normal life for her five-year-old daughter. But little Ellie’s blood hold the key to the vampires’ salvation or their destruction, and there are those who will stop at nothing to obtain the child.

Jake Wong will do anything to protect his best friend’s daughter, but can he convince Max’s widow second chances are the best thing for both of them as well as Ellie?

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Four Days and Counting...

Ghouls in the Grocery Store is available for preorder at most major e-book retailers. It's the penultimate story in the Bloodlines saga before the solid waste hits the spinning turbine in Resurrected. Reserve your copy today!

GHOULS IN THE GROCERY STORE - Coming September 15!

After the murder of her husband by enemies of her uncle’s coven, Tiffany Stephens wants a normal life for her five-year-old daughter. But little Ellie’s blood hold the key to the vampires’ salvation or their destruction, and there are those who will stop at nothing to obtain the child.

Jake Wong will do anything to protect his best friend’s daughter, but can he convince Max’s widow second chances are the best thing for both of them as well as Ellie?

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Monday, September 2, 2019

Ghouls in the Grocery Store - Chapter 3

This is the last sample chapter for Ghouls in the Grocery Store before it comes out in less than two weeks. I'm so excited that this is my sixth release for 2019. It feels like I'm finally getting my groove back.

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All three of us dropped to the floor.

More surprised shouts echoed from the high industrial-style ceiling. The cries shifted to howls of pain and shrieks of terror. One last scream abruptly cut off. An occasional moan swept from other parts of the grocery store. Otherwise, it was eerily quiet.

“Shit,” I muttered. Ares!

Still no answer to my silent prayer.

“Mommy, language,” Ellie chided under her breath. I should never have let her watch Captain America movies. She was turning into a goody-two-shoes.

Waiting for my eyes to adjust, I wrapped my left hand around her right. We crept to the edge of the railing and peeked between the slats around the back wall of the café. Outside the main doors of the grocery store, the security lamps for the parking lot were off, too. Against the ambient light from the stores across the street, tall shadows shuffled in front of the glass. Whatever they were, they didn’t move with the speed and elegance of vampires or fae, nor with the purpose of healthy Normals.

“I count a dozen outside,” I whispered.

The warmth of Jake’s body against my back was comforting as he peered over my head. “Same. They probably have more waiting for you by your SUV and at the pharmacy entrance. What the hell are they?”

So he noticed the discrepancies, too.

“Don’t know,” I breathed. “Don’t want to find out either.” The emergency generator still hadn’t kicked on. Whoever was after us had done their research on the building’s power supply.

“There’s a door to the storage area in the dairy section,” he whispered. “Maybe we can go out the delivery bay.”

“If they have the main entrances and my vehicle staked out, then they’ll have someone watching the back.”

Ellie tugged on my hand. “Mommy, I don’t see any vampire eyes.”

She was right. Most of the rogues we’d encountered over the last few years were newborns, like the ones who initially attacked us. Baby vamps couldn’t keep their emotions in check while hunting. When my uncle Duncan was Turned in the sixteenth century, those glowing eyes caused terror. Now, the signature glow made the younger vampires a convenient target.

So either really old vampires stalked us with Murphy only knew what those shadows outside were, or whatever was after Ellie were things we’d never encountered before. I hoped, anyway. If they were dino demons, we were seriously fucked. “Dairy section then,” I breathed the words to Jake. “Ellie—”

“I know the drill, Mommy,” she whispered back fiercely. “Stay quiet and do what you and Uncle Jake tell me.”

The cavernous interior of the store was pitch black. We carefully backtracked out of the café. I crept down the closest aisle, trying not to breath too loud. Ellie’s damp hand clung to mine as she matched my steps. My boot brushed something, and it rolled away with a clatter that sounded obscenely loud compared to the silence of the rest of the store.

Dammit! Leave it to me to select the canned goods aisle in the dark.

Snuffling sounds came from all around us. My heart pounded.

“Up,” Jake whispered. He grabbed Ellie and boosted her to the top shelf. She kicked the shelf below her in her effort to climb up, and more cans hit the floor in a series of bangs and clangs.

A shadow slightly darker than our surroundings moved at the end of the aisle. It stumbled on other cans probably knocked over by panicked shoppers. And the monster reminded me of how I’d captured a certain red-coated, home-intruding elf who wasn’t as harmless on Christmas Eve as everyone thought.

I holstered my gun and ran toward the shadow, sweeping my left arm along the fourth shelf. More cans landed on the linoleum tiles, the sound reminiscent of a horrendous hail storm. The noises drew the shadow closer, and it sniffed loudly at the cans rolling toward it.

Taking advantage of the distraction. I scrambled up the shelving and reached the top. Teeth snapped behind me. I looked down, but I couldn’t make out much in the dark. It was about the size of a St. Bernard. Its smell wasn’t remotely canine though. Pulling up my legs, I knocked over some more cans. The monster below grunted when they hit it, but otherwise, the blows didn’t seem to faze the creature.

Instead, the thing raised its head, or what I thought was its head, and let loose a rising and falling whine that sounded suspiciously like an emergency vehicle siren. Snuffling from the other things got closer.

“Stay here.” The shadow that was Jake clambered to the top of the opposite shelving unit. His silhouette stood out against the red lights of a cereal display a couple of aisles away that must have been battery-powered. He race-walked along the narrow tops of the shelving units, trying not to knock anything over and attract the monster’s attention, before he faded into the rest of the darkness.

Below us, the creature leapt and snapped in Jake’s general direction before it resumed its call. Without knowing how to kill these creatures, shooting them could be a waste of bullets. Not to mention, the noise would attract the others, and we’d be surrounded within seconds.

“Mommy?” The one word from my daughter could barely be called a whisper.

“I’m right here.” I crawled toward her, desperately trying to think of a way to get her away from these creatures. I trusted Jake, but I’d learned a long time ago not to put all my faith in other people’s great ideas.

“We need to make it be quiet.” Ellie lifted a can and threw it in the direction of the siren call. Another grunt followed the dull thud, but it did stop its weird wail.

Instead of restarting its call, it jumped toward the source of the projectile. The shelving unit wobbled. A muffled shriek came from my daughter’s direction. But her action and the creature’s response gave me an excellent idea.

I reached for her, and she shivered beneath my touch. “You had the right idea, sweetie.” I didn’t bother keeping my voice down anymore and peered over the other side into the health foods aisle. Two darker shapes snuffled and prowled the floor. “Throw cans at the ones over here.” I drew her hand to where I wanted her to aim.

“But two monsters will knock over these shelves—ooooo! We jump to the next shelves and the other monster will get squished!”

“That’s my girl.” I squeezed Ellie’s hand and released it. A little prayer escaped me. Ares still didn’t appear. There was a time I would have banked my daughter’s life on a response from one of the gods in our lives, but not anymore. Not after what happened to Max.

“Ready,” I said. “Go!”

We threw can after can at the two creatures below. The grunts of pain turned to growls. At the same time, the first creature started its siren wailing again. Finally, the two we were trying to antagonize threw themselves against the unit.

The shelving started to rock, but it wasn’t enough. “Keep throwing, sweetie,” I ordered before I launched a couple of cans at the first creature. Its alternating howl cut off, and it leapt at me. The unit swung wildly. Ellie squeaked and I grabbed her.

The monsters after us must have instinctively decided to work in tandem to knock us off our perch. Or they were just dumb enough not to realize the units were close enough for a domino effect if one was knocked over. The shelves swayed with their rhythm as they took turns ramming the steel, each oscillation bringing us closer to our target.

I rose to a crouch and pulled Ellie to her feet. “When say go, jump as high and as far as you can.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Her palm was definitely sweaty, or mine was. Maybe it was both of us.

The unit hovered over the single monster in the canned good aisle before it did a slow swing back. Had I miscalculated? As the shelves became perpendicular with the floor, the other two creatures must have sensed they were close to capturing us. They slammed into the steel rack.

“Go!”

Cans rained to the floor. The single monster’s howl of pain abruptly cut off when the unit we leapt from slammed into its counterpart. Our landing spot slid away beneath our feet. The acceleration made us overshoot both the opposite side of the canned goods and the international foods aisle.

I curled around Ellie, hoping beyond hope I didn’t break any of my own bones or hers when we landed. We crashed into another rack before we dropped. Plastic bags and cardboard boxes exploded beneath me. The scent of wheat, corn, and sugar filled the air.

“Up, Mommy!” Ellie yanked on my arm once, but I couldn’t move fast enough. I covered Ellie as more cardboard boxes pummeled me from above. A series of successive clangs followed by a tsunami of products crashing to the floor rattled my eardrums as each row of shelves tipped over into the next.

When quiet settled over the store again, I relaxed my tight grip on Ellie and listened. No snuffling or siren wailing pierced the silence. It was too much to hope the monsters had been crushed under the falling debris, but we definitely couldn’t stay here.

“Follow me,” I whispered before I brushed aside boxes and loose cereal and crawled toward the reddish lights gleaming at the end of the tunnel formed by the tilted shelves. Glow-in-the-dark yo-yo’s hanging from the endcap marked the right side of the aisle. Those might come in handy for a distraction later if more creatures prowled the store.

A soft crunching came from behind me that sure as hell didn’t sound like it was caused by hands and knees. It was too…wet. I paused. Murphy, please tell me my baby wasn’t doing what I thought she was doing.

I didn’t want to ask, but I had to. “Ellie, are you eating cereal off the floor?”

“Just the pieces on top of the piles,” she whispered. “I’m hungry.”

Only my daughter would be worried about food while we were mortal danger. “If you’re too full of cereal to go to McDonald’s…”

The crunching stopped. “I’m not.”

“Follow me.” I gritted my teeth and crawled toward the red lights and glowing yo-yo’s again. I really couldn’t complain. I’d done far weirder shit when I was a kid. At least, my daughter wasn’t being raised by vampires.

A shadow appeared between the glowing cereal display and the yoyos. I stopped and drew my sidearm. We had no place to go if another creature stalked us from the opposite end of the makeshift tunnel.

“Tiffany?”

I relaxed at Jake’s whisper and started to stow my gun when an awful thought occurred. The dino demons, the ones who helped the rebel vampire Giovanni beat Max to death and kidnap Ellie, could shapeshift beyond a were’s two forms. They could become anyone. And you wouldn’t know until they were ripping out your heart.

I aimed at the shadow. “What were you planning to help me with this weekend?”

The shadow shifted before he said, “Your damn garbage disposal. When was our first kiss?”

“You’ve never kissed me, asshole.” But I relaxed and holstered my weapon.

“I think you two should,” my daughter piped up from behind me.

Thank Murphy, it was dark. From the heat in my face, my lily-white skin would be glowing like the freaking cardboard tiger beneath the battery-operated Christmas lights.

“No one’s kissing anyone,” I muttered. I crawled toward Jake. “Why not?” Ellie asked. “You like each other.”

Jake helped me to my feet. “Yeah. Why not?” His dark eyes glittered red from the cereal display.

He was funny and cute, and he doted over Ellie. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, he’d replaced Gerard Butler in my fantasies. And with that silent admission, old guilt crashed over me.

“Don’t make me break my promise to Alex,” I hissed.

“And what’s that?” Jake asked as he pulled Ellie from under the fallen shelving and lifted her onto his hip.

Ellie cupped her hands around his ear, but I could hear her anyway. “Grandpa Alex told her she’s not allowed to shoot you.”

Jake’s teeth flashed scarlet in the light. “I’m glad Grandpa Alex is looking out for me. I wouldn’t want to be shot.”

She nodded solemnly. “I won’t let Mommy shoot you either.” She patted his cheek.

“I’m glad somebody has my back.” His voice grew serious. “We’re not getting out the rear entrance. There’s a dozen of those things prowling the unloading dock.”

“What about the, um…” I didn’t want to ask about the grocery employees who should have been in the store room in front of Ellie.

“There’s a lot of frozen pizza and sausage on the floor back there,” Jake murmured. “Nothing we could really use.” For an instant, I wanted to hug him for his discretion. Ellie didn’t need to see the mangled bodies of the employees. “So why haven’t they come in after all the racket we made?”

“Same reason the ones in the front haven’t come in.” His voice turned grim. “They got us trapped, or they think they do.” I glanced around us. Still quiet. “So what are they waiting for?”

“I don’t think we want to find out,” he said.

Faint snuffling came from a few aisles away, followed by the pop and crunch of a bag filled with more air than snack food.

Jake nudged me in the opposite direction. “Let’s head to the manager’s office. It’s defensible and we can call for backup.” He left out that the land lines had probably been cut the same time the power had been. But talking on a cell phone before we were out of the monsters reach wasn’t smart either.

The better question was whether my cell phone still worked after my awkward landing in the cereal aisle.

I grabbed a couple of the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo’s and shoved them into my jacket pockets before we crept through the dairy section, keeping low against the waist-high refrigerator units in the middle of the floor. Ellie stayed silent. If it weren’t for the adrenaline rush, my heart would have broken. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up like I had, her life in constant danger.

Max and I tried so fucking hard to give her a normal life. But here we were—hunted through the damn grocery store. Crawling behind the floor units in the dark kept Ellie from seeing the bodies. There weren’t many though, not for the amount of people in the store when we arrived. And they sure weren’t killed by falling cans or broken wine bottles. Unfortunately, the super-dim secondary emergency bulbs kicked on around the perimeter of the store as we neared the end of the dairy section. The battery-powered lamps were designed to give shoppers and employees enough light to evacuate the building in the event of an earthquake. It also meant the things hunting us wouldn’t have to rely on their noses anymore.

The shelving units we’d tipped over came to a rest against the first section of upright freezers. Movement flickered inside the endcap unit. I hissed, and Jake halted his crawl. Using hand signs, we argued about checking the unit. He wanted to take care of the creature inside. Logically, I pointed out why the hell would one of them open the freezer, much less crawl inside?

“It’s a kid,” Ellie whispered.

We both looked at her. Pantomiming us, she emphatically jabbed a thumb at her chest before pointing at the freezer. Jake and I exchanged looks. Something rustled a few aisles away. Cereal crunched and popped, followed by a snuffling sound. One of the creatures had picked up our trail.

Shit. We couldn’t leave a child in the damn freezer. The mom had probably shoved him or her inside before a vampire or a canine monster gutted her.

I ignored Jake’s gestures and crept around the corner of the floor freezer. His loyalty to Max meant he’d keep Ellie safe. Holstering my sidearm, I checked the dairy aisle. Nothing in sight. More crunching came from our landing spot in the cereal.

There wasn’t any time left. Condensation fogged the interior glass of the upright freezer. I eased the door open and laid my finger over my lips. The boy didn’t look much older than my own daughter. Thankfully, terror kept him from even whimpering.

I beckon for him to come out. He shook his head wildly. Even in the dim emergency lighting, the whites of his eyes stood out against his dark skin. I couldn’t leave him in there. He was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. Even if the monsters couldn’t find him, the hypothermia would kill him.

From halfway across the store, the crunching came closer. Choosing your battles is part of parenthood, but this wasn’t a battle I could let the child win, even when the kid wasn’t mine. Not for the first time, I wished I was telepathic. I stuck my head in the freezer. The little boy tried to meld his back into the plastic shelving.

“I can get you some place safe and help you find your mommy and daddy.” My whisper turned into a cloud inside the unit. I hoped I hadn’t just lied to the kid. “But we have to go now.”

Finally, he nodded. The shelf creaked as he crawled out of the freezer. I took his chilly hand and turned.

A dark shadow emerged from the tunnel that used to be the cereal aisle. It immediately howled its companion’s siren-like wail. Or maybe it was the same damn monster.

Whatever. The fucking thing stopped calling for backup and barreled straight for me and the kid.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Ghouls in the Grocery Store - Chapter 2

“Mommy, why does everyone call Uncle Duncan ‘master’ now?”

I glanced at Ellie as I yanked the shopping cart out of the row. The overhead fluorescent lights turned my daughter’s pale skin into a ghastly gray-blue tone even with the kabuki makeup washed off. And while the days were getting longer, dark had already fallen by the time we reached the grocery store in our Tarzana neighborhood.

Frankly, I would have given anything to light some candles and soak in a hot bath than deal with grocery shopping, but we literally had nothing for dinner in the house except juice boxes and peanut butter as Ellie had already blabbed to my mother-in-law.

Hell, we had nothing to spread the peanut butter on. We ate it straight out of the jar last night.

I passed the cart I had to the woman behind me dressed in a full burqa. Our gazes met. Her eyes were arresting, such a light hazel that they stood out against her black lashes and dark skin.

“Here you go,” I said with a friendly smile. Okay, I did it more to buy time to answer my daughter’s question than any shred of politeness.

The woman nodded and murmured, “Thank you.” She pushed the cart into the main part of the store while I grabbed another one.

“Because he’s the boss now Uncle Caesar has retired, sweetie,” I said, coming up with the simplest explanation I could. The entire fucking vampire coven were honorary aunts and uncles. I hoped it made up for Max not being in her life. I pushed the cart forward, and the second set of double doors into the supermarket hissed open.

Innocent blue eyes stared up at me. “My teacher says it’s a bad thing that we call him ‘master’.”

I froze half-way through the doors. Mrs. Hill was a dream, kind and patient with my daughter and her fellow kindergarteners. Lydia Hill was also black. And even though I was mixed, she probably didn’t realize it because of the predominant St. James genes. I fumbled for what to tell Ellie.

I settled on clearing my throat as I pushed the cart past the open doors. “Did she say why it was a bad thing?”

Ellie skipped beside me. “She said it meant his family owned your family.”

“Where on earth did she get that idea?” I had a pretty good notion, but I wanted to hear my daughter’s side of the story. “She said the only way minorities came to America was because white people bought and sold them.” Ellie frowned. “I tried to tell to Mrs. Hill that Grandpa Kensai came here because he wanted to, but she said I was wrong.”

Technically, Kensai Osaka, his descendants, and his retainers had been forced to leave Honshu after he’d butted heads one too many times with the vampire master who ruled the island. And technically, he’d worked for an African prior to Caesar becoming Normal and ceding the coven leadership to Duncan. But trying to explain the complexities and subtleties of ancient family lines in today’s politically correct climate was damn near impossible. Add in the vampire portion, and we were looking at pretty, white straightjackets.

I paused next to the flower department while I fumbled for my shopping list and a pen in the knapsack that doubled as my purse as well as the words to explain things at a kindergarten level. The multitude of Easter lilies overpowered every other bloom in the vicinity. A quick glance said no one was nearby. No one except the dark-haired man in sunglasses and a tan windbreaker, standing behind a towering display of houseplants. For the love of Murphy, did Jake Wong realize how much he stuck out in a crowd?

At least, he’d learned not to wear hoodies after an encounter with department store security when I was buying Ellie new shoes for school. Now, he looked like a middle-aged perv stalking us instead of a purse snatcher.

I returned my attention to Ellie and lowered my voice. “Sweetie, did you tell Mrs. Hill Uncle Duncan was a vampire?”

“No!” Her eyes widened. “You and Daddy told me never to say that word to anybody who’s not Family.”

A pang hit my heart. Part surprise she remembered something Max had said, part guilt I hadn’t thought much about him lately. And we were coming up on the eighteen-month anniversary of his death.

“Thank you for listening to us.” I smiled at her. “I’ll have a talk with Mrs. Hill, but in the meantime, let’s not use the word ‘master’ around anyone at school since it bothers your teacher.”

“Okay, Mommy.”

I envied the simplicity of my daughter’s world. I didn’t have the same luxury when I was her age. My mother and all other remaining relatives descended from Duncan’s sister Margaret had been slaughtered shortly after I was born. The fact Dad could trace his line back to Caesar’s sister and Kensai had been icing on the cake for the rogue vampires who murdered him while they sought to overthrow the coven master nearly twenty-five years ago. As a result, I’d been constantly watched and guarded nearly my entire life. And now?

Now, thanks to Max’s genetics, Ellie was even more valuable to various parties who wanted to destroy our coven. Which was why my fellow enforcer was following us.

“Why don’t you pick out a couple of nice tomatoes for us?” I pointed at the low display Ellie could reach.

Suspicion narrowed her eyes at my request for fresh produce. “We’re still going to McDonald’s tonight, aren’t we?”

Once again, my stomach rebelled at the thought, but I couldn’t blame the fast food restaurant. My extreme morning sickness when I’d been pregnant with Ellie was thoroughly at fault. Because of the memory, I hadn’t been able to eat there since then.

So, of course, it was my daughter’s favorite.

“As soon as we get our shopping done. We don’t have any coffee either,” I reminded her.

“No grumpy mommies!” She tore off for the tomato display.

I didn’t bother to turn around. “Come out from behind the plants, Wong.”

“Wow. Ellie is right. You are a grumpy mommy.” He appeared in my line of vision and peered at me over the rim of his sunglasses. “Do I need to get you some coffee now?” He gestured toward the in-store café on the other side of the produce section.

“You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you. Mattie was scheduled to be on duty tonight.”

He shrugged. “Her great-something-granddaughter’s play is tonight. She asked if we could trade shifts.”

I crossed my arms and tapped my toe. “And Alex approved this?” The coven’s chief enforcer was married to my foster mom, which kind of made him my step-father as well as our boss. Like I said, vampire families were complicated even when you’re Normal.

And just because I’d already talked to Alex didn’t mean I wouldn’t give Jake some shit for not calling me himself.

“Why wouldn’t he?” Jake frowned, but even while talking to me, his eyes roamed, examining the other shoppers for signs of danger. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s been on an unpredictability rampage lately. He wants to keep the bad guys guessing.”

The last things I wanted to discuss was work or Alex’s tactics, much less the fact I’d been placed on desk duty for the last eighteen months because of the threat against Ellie. My only consolation was Elizabeth was even more restricted in her movements than I was.

“Next time, call me and confirm even if Alex contacts me,” I muttered. “You know these dino demons can pretend to be anyone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He flashed me a grin that sent inappropriate feelings through me. Why on earth she dumped him was beyond rational understanding? Hell, if I’d met Jake before Max and I became a couple, I might not have hooked up with my husband.

But then, I wouldn’t have Ellie either.

“Uncle Jake!” Ellie raced back with two tomatoes in a clear plastic bag.

He caught her as she leapt at him. “What’s up, munchkin?”

“You’re not doing a good job of hiding,” she whispered. Or tried to. Everyone in the flower department and produce section could hear her. “I saw you behind those plants.”

“Yeah.” He gave me a dirty look. “Your mom pointed that out, too.”

I grinned. “Dude, I wasn’t the one made by a five-year-old.”

“How about we get your mom some coffee so she won’t be so grumpy?” he said.

“Uh-huh.” She nodded her head vigorously. “Can I get some milk, too?”

“That’s up to your mom.”

They both looked at me and said, “Ple-e-e-ease!”

I shook my head, trying to not to laugh at their antics. “Fine. I’ll be in the deli.”

Ellie handed me the bag of tomatoes before the pair headed for the café. Jake and Max had been friends for years before I met my husband. Hell, their friendship had even survived—

Her.

Old rage welled, and I roughly shoved the cart toward the deli department. She could have saved her brother. She had the power. But she hadn’t lifted a finger.

And now, my little girl didn’t have her father. Even worse, Duncan had sided with her, which was why I only spoke with him when necessary. Even as my grief for my deceased husband eased, the fury remained.

Maybe agreeing to go to Ted and Elizabeth’s for Easter dinner wasn’t such a good idea. I might get her blood all over their expensive berber carpet.

“Can I help you?” The hair-netted store employee peered over the counter. She smiled brightly. Her medium brown complexion didn’t look any healthier under the grocery’s lights than Ellie’s had. Murphy only knew how bad my skin looked.

“Yes, please.” I tapped my pen against my chin. “A half-pound of Swiss, and a half-pound of Colby Longhorn.”

I stared at the rolls of lunch meats, trying to decide between pesto ham and black pepper turkey, when the sandalwood hit my nose. I looked up. The slip of paper and pen fell from my hands.

The deli lady’s brown eyes had the faintest gold sheen. She wasn’t anyone I knew from the coven. It didn’t matter if my body language or my thoughts gave me away. She leapt over the counter, fangs gleaming in the awful grocery lights.

I stumbled backward, yanking the cart with me as I went down and drawing my Glock at the same time. The rogue vampire landed in the cart. She smashed Ellie’s careful selected tomatoes before bending and stretching the heavy wire bottom. Thankfully, she didn’t tear through the steel. I kicked the cart away from me.

The sudden jerk and roll caught the vampire off guard. She struggled to maintain her balance, which meant she was a newborn. I lined up the heart shot and squeezed my trigger twice.

I didn’t wait for her to dissolve into a puddle of goo. I rolled to my feet and took off for the café. “Ellie!” Behind me, there was a loud splash.

A middle-aged lady wearing a business suit in the produce section screamed, “Gun!” She and the other shoppers took off in all directions.

All of Alex’s lectures over the last year and a half about altering my routes ran through my mind. I only hit this grocery once a month at most. Was it Marcus Giovanni and his rogues who’d allied themselves with the dinosaur demons or the Vampire Liberation Front? How long had these assholes been planning their attack?

Someone tackled me, and I hit the thin veneer of linoleum over concrete hard enough to knock the wind out of me. My Glock skidded away and beneath a display of oranges.

Rage came roaring back, even if my breath didn’t. I twisted onto my back, flicked my wrist, and shoved my silver-coated, and very illegal, stiletto into the temple of my attacker. His shocked expression came an instant before he slumped on top of me.

Unfortunately, the stiletto blade wasn’t long enough to penetrate his chest wall all the way to his heart, much less big enough to cut off his head. I jerked out the blade and stowed it inside my jacket sleeve again before I wiggled out from under him and crawled over to my handgun. Air came back with little fits and gasps, and my chest ached like a son of a bitch.

Another vampire dressed like a suburban dad rounded the bin of Idaho potatoes, a sick smile on his face. I squeezed off one shot. He wavered for a moment before the flesh slid from his bone and landed on the floor with a loud splooch. His skeleton collapsed a moment later.

I rose to a crouch and made my way back to the asshole who tackled me. He could have been any day worker in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. He was also trying to regain his feet when I finished what I started.

GRANDPA ARES! I silently yelled. I hated depending on anyone, but Ellie was in danger. I wanted my foster grandfather to fry these bastards before our luck ran out.

More shots echoed against the cavernous ceiling, followed by the screams of more shoppers. There was no pop of displaced air. No sudden appearance of the god who claimed me as a granddaughter. He would have done anything for Ellie, so why wasn’t he answering me?

Another shot, much closer to me. Jake.

With a more wary eye for rogues, I crawled toward the café, but apparently, I’d taken care of the ones meant to keep me out of the way while they kidnapped my daughter. Dammit, I was not going through this bullshit again!

Outside of the rails around the café area were two reeking puddles of goo. Jake used broken legs of a wooden chair to keep a third vampire at bay near the register. Ellie was nowhere in sight.

I rose to my feet and took aim. “Hey, asshat!”

Jake dove for cover, but the rogue vampire turned toward me as I planned. I squeezed off two more shots. The first took out an unhealthy chunk of skull. Bright red blossomed on the white t-shirt where his heart was from the second shot. Once again, my target wavered for a moment before the flesh and organs slid from his bones. Two seconds later, the skeleton collapsed in the gross, spreading remains.

I stalked over to Jake who climbed to his feet. “Lose your weapon?”

“Nope. Found it.” He held up his own gun and flashed a bright grin.

“Where’s Ellie?” I bit out. Jake stuck his index finger and thumb between his lips. His whistle sounded like a bird call. An answering whistle came from one of the cabinets behind the register counter. Jake changed his bird sound.

The door of the cabinet eased open, and Jake gave the dark space a thumbs-up. Ellie crawled out. She ran to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I tried to block her view of the two kids who had been working the café. I couldn’t think about their parents waiting for them to come home for the rest of eternity, or I’d freeze with panic.

“Good girl,” I whispered into Ellie’s hair. “We need to leave, sweetie.”

She nodded.

I’d only taken one step toward the closest exit when the entire store plunged into darkness.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ghouls in the Grocery Store - Chapter 1

This next story is Tiffany-centric, and I had a lot of fun writing it. It's funny how the words pour out when you're enjoying yourself.

=========================
The werewolf at the entrance to my in-laws’ estate poked my left finger with an Olympian bronze pin, one of many my foster grandfather had finagled out of his brother Hephaestus. When I didn’t scream, burst into flames, or otherwise croak from the injury, the were signaled his partner to open the gates.

I guided my SUV up to the portico of the main house and climbed out. Enough sunlight remained to show the flower beds had been redone.

Again.

Elizabeth didn’t have much else to do these days. She was damn lucky she had only been sentenced to house arrest after her treason. All of the St. James Coven enforcers, except one, wanted the privilege of whacking off her head, which was Uncle Duncan had to trade favors with Los Angeles’s pack master. Elizabeth thought she’d been saving Max’s life when she went behind our backs, but she started a cold war between the North American vampire masters that had threatened to turn hot for the last eighteen months.

A brief twinge of grief jerked at my soul at the thought of my late husband, not the all-consuming blackness that had coated every waking thought the first year after his death. I stabbed the doorbell. Max was the reason I agreed to our daughter spending a day of her Spring Break with her grandparents. The extra time to work on my masters’ thesis was only a bonus.

The door swung open for my second surprise. Susannah Epstein stood there in a gray housekeeper’s uniform way too big for her and an expression that could only be described as a mix of amusement and annoyance. “Hey, Tiffany!”

“Should I ask what happened to Juanita?”

The teen witch smirked and flipped her ponytail. “Besides the fact she could deal with the weres and the vampires, but dealing with your mother-in-law’s cabin fever wasn’t worth her green card?”

Shit. Elizabeth must have been on one hell of a roll this week. If our vampire coven didn’t need her so bad, Uncle Duncan would have dug the family broadsword out of storage and cheerfully beheaded her himself, even though she was his mother-in-law as well.

“Come on in.” Susannah waved. The polish on her fingernails matched the aqua streaks in her dark curls. The bright color distracted from the even darker turn my own thoughts had taken. “Ellie’s putting on a performance for the family.”

As much as I wanted to ask how her step-grandmother conned her into working as a housekeeper for the craziest Normal on this side of the Mississippi, I managed to remain quiet. Instead, I followed her. Strains of Vivaldi grew stronger as we approached the formal living room.

A pained smile was plastered on Elizabeth’s face when she glanced at me from where she sat on one of the couches with her toy poodle, Mr. Cuddles. As I entered the living room, I saw why.

Kabuki theater makeup decorated my baby’s face. She was dressed in her black leotard, hot pink tutu, and the black toe shoes she’d demanded for her fifth birthday. The sweet tones of the composer’s “Spring” concerto were at odds with the mix of ballet moves and kata forms Ellie demonstrated in time to the music.

While Elizabeth tried, and failed, to hide her dismay, Ted was enthralled. Given Ellie would be his one and only grandchild, I suspected Ted would support her even if she decided to become a contract killer. As the last notes of the violin died, he launched into enthusiastic applause.

“Bravo! Bravo!”

Half-blind, the thirteen-year-old Mr. Cuddles barked at Ted’s clapping.

“That was very nice, Eleanor.” Elizabeth was the only person who called my daughter by her full name, probably thinking it would irritate me. Hell, I was just happy my own mother hadn’t given me one of my ancestors’ more frumpy names. Like Mathilda.

“Spectacular, sweetie!” a garrulous voice said.

I walked a little further into the living room. Grandma Neel, Elizabeth’s mother and one of my daughter’s namesakes, sat on her raggedy recliner she insisted on bring with her when she moved to Los Angeles from Ridgeway, West Virginia. Well, forced to move to keep Dare Coven, which controlled the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon line, from murdering the old lady out of spite.

“Hi there, shrimp!” She grinned, showing more than a few missing teeth.

“Back atcha, munchkin.” I leaned over to give her a hug.

From the hot pink and black track suit she wore, I knew what had inspired Ellie’s performance attire. It also explained why Susannah was now working here. Max’s grandmother and the high priestess of the Los Angeles witch coven had hit it off from the moment they met.

“Mommy! You need to see my new show!” Ellie raced toward Ted’s expensive stereo.

“Hold up there, young lady!” I gave her a stern look. “I told you this morning before Grandma Phil brought you over here we would need to leave at seven.”

She lifted her chin in a defiant gesture. “You said we could stop at McDonald’s for dinner.”

I squelched my urge to vomit. These were the times I missed Max taking on certain household duties, and trips to that particular fast food joint was one of them. “And I also said you needed to be ready. If you wash your face, put on your street shoes, and don’t argue with me, we will still go to McDonald’s.”

“Yay!” She tore off for the stairs.

Susannah laughed. “I’ll go help her.”

Once they disappeared, Ted quietly said, “Why don’t you two stay for dinner?”

“Because god knows she doesn’t have any food in the house?” Elizabeth sneered.

Figured my own kid would tattle on me.

Before I could come up with a good retort, Grandma Neel came to my rescue. “When you bother to get something higher than an M.R.S. degree, you can bitch, Lizzie. Until then, shut the fuck up and leave the girl alone.”

Elizabeth’s mouth open and closed a few times, but the glares both Ted and her mother aimed at her convinced Elizabeth she was on the losing side of this battle. Or maybe she realized I hadn’t accepted Ted’s invitation.

Mr. Cuddles growled in my general direction, all too happy to give voice to his mistress’s displeasure.

I smiled at my father-in-law. I may totally detest his wife, but they were Ellie’s only living biological grandparents, and for her sake, I made the effort. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got a couple of errands I need to run tonight. How about we come over for Easter dinner?”

People would’ve thought I’d given Ted the fucking Holy Grail the way his face lit up, but he immediately sobered. “Is it okay if Duncan and Sam are here?”

My eyes narrowed at the mention of her name.

“Please, Tiffany. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve had my family together for a holiday.” His big blue eyes looked so much like Max’s through his glasses.

Did my hate for the bitch who’d condemned my husband to death outweigh Ted’s need for his family?

“Can I second Ted’s request?” Grandma Neel asked. “Not trying to play the guilt card, shrimp, but I’m eighty-years-old, and Lord knows how many Easters I have left.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Samantha would know.”

And that snotty comment tilted the emotional pile in my head despite my feelings about my sister-in-law. “It’s cool, Ted.” I held up a finger before he could say whatever he was about to say. “On the condition that she is never alone in a room with Ellie. Got me?”

He didn’t even ask me who I meant. He simply nodded.

Ellie raced back into the living, her black bangs damp from her face scrubbing and her jacket on. “Ready to go! See?” She held up a foot to show off her matching hot pink athletic shoes.

“All right then.” I gave Ted and Grandma Neel hugs. “We’ll see you Sunday.”

“At noon,” Ted added.

Ellie’s eyes were wide. “We’re coming here for Easter?”

I nodded.

“Yay!” She hugged everybody before she tore off for the front door.

Part of me rejoiced a smear of red face paint Ellie had missed now decorated Elizabeth’s off-white skirt as I turned to follow my daughter.

I waved to the weres at the gate as I pulled onto the street. A glance at the rearview showed my daughter while she rattled on about bringing her eggs over to hide. Behind her, headlights snapped on, and a Jeep pulled into traffic. A familiar red Jeep that was often parked in my driveway. Rather than guess and take chances with my daughter’s life, I tapped the hands-off button for my phone and said, “Call Alex.”

Two rings later, my boss’s cheerful voice filled the compartment. “Hey, darlin’! What’s up?”

“Hi, Grandpa Alex!” Ellie yelled from the backseat.

“This is business, young lady,” I said sternly.

“Sorry, Mommy,” Ellie said.

“What’s wrong?” Alex’s voice turned serious at my words.

“Was there a change in guard rotation?” I bit out.

“Oops! Sorry, Tiffany.” Computer keys clicked in the background. “Mattie had a last minute family thing. Jake’s on tonight.”

“You’re lucky I recognized his vehicle.”

Alex groaned. “Please tell me you didn’t shoot him.”

“Hell, no—” I started.

“Mommy, language,” came an angry five-year-old’s voice from her car seat. Alex’s stifled laughter echoed through the speaker.

“Sorry,” I muttered and cleared my throat. “No, I didn’t shoot him. He’s supposed to help me swap out our garbage disposal tomorrow.” Part of me felt guilty for depending on Jake’s knowledge of household repairs, but I wanted Ellie to learn to fend for herself. That meant I needed to learn. Neither my uncle who raised me or my husband knew basic household shit. They always hired other people to fix their stuff.

“I promise I’ll call you next time there’s a schedule change,” Alex swore.

“Only because you know I’ll tell Phil, and she’ll barbeque your ass.”

“Mommy!”

Alex chuckled. “She will, and Ellie don’t give your mom a hard time.”

“I won’t! We’re going to McDonald’s!” she yelled.

“Thanks, Alex. Talk to you later.” I ended the call. It wasn’t his fault I had turned into a raging paranoid. The same assholes who had beaten Max to death had kidnapped Ellie, and despite their efforts, I managed to get her back alive. I’d already lost my husband. I sure as hell wasn’t losing my daughter, too.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Reality Bites Is Live!

What's this? A Thursday post?

Yes, Reality Bites is out! My first Bloodlines story in eighteen months, and Number 3 on the countdown to the end of the series!

REALITY BITES

Being a regular human in the supernatural world is never easy, something Mai Osaka learned before she could walk. So when her boyfriend’s fairy ex strolls into the casino where Mai is head of security, she knows there’s more to the Seelie’s story than she’s telling. But can Mai figure out the real plan and who’s behind it before the fae pull the biggest heist in the history of Las Vegas?

Amazon, all countries
Apple
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Google Play
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Smashwords


And just a reminder--Ghouls in the Grocery Store and Resurrected are already on preorder!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reality Bites - Chapter 2

Stan was all for Mai’s idea of sticking the cheating player in the vault. It’d been nearly a year since he’d seen her. Phone calls, texts, and video conferencing weren’t enough, but he respected her wishes when it came to keeping their relationship quiet.

Though he had a strong suspicion Sam knew, especially after she threatened to castrate him if Mai got hurt just before he left Los Angeles for his flight to Vegas. From the goddess’s brimstone and decay scent, it wasn’t Mai’s personal safety she was concerned about. Sam still held a grudge that both the Summer and Winter Queens had a price on her head when she’d first been created.

Mai led him to the hotel’s equivalent of a little jail. A vampire and a werecoyote waited for them in the office area. She quickly made official introductions though he and Kunal had met before.

The werecoyote was the more interesting of the two. ’Coyotes rarely mixed with other weres, much less any of the supernatural races.

Mai took charge. “Where’s Marley?”

“Waiting for her table replacement,” Mike said. “The pit boss said the backup was running late because traffic lights on the Strip were out from north of the airport.”

Stan exchanged a look with Mai. It wouldn’t take much to hex a city’s traffic control system, but were the events connected?

“Where’s the witch?” he asked.

“Witch?” Mike couldn’t suppress his grin. “Dude, the guy in Room Two is one of your people.”

“My people?” A sinking feeling in his gut killed whatever pleasure remained in Stan at seeing Mai again.

“Did you test him?” Mai asked.

Mike nodded. “Definitely not a dino demon.”

“From the honeysweet smell, he’s definitely fae,” Kunal affirmed.

“But to warn you, his form shimmered when I stabbed him with the needle. Some kind of glamor on him.” Mike frowned. “And…he’s Summer folk.”

Even Kunal gave the werecoyote an odd look. “How can you tell the difference between Seelie and Unseelie?”

The young were shrugged. “That’s like saying all vampires smell the same. You don’t smell like Marley.”

Kunal gave Mai a look that could only be worded as “Please let me drain him.”

Duncan was correct that the werecoyote made an excellent addition to the Karnak’s security. Stan steeled himself. However, it was time to act like the head of the Karnak. “Has he given a statement?”

Kunal shook his head. “He only said he was perfectly happy to wait until our boss got here.”

“Then let’s explain the Karnak’s policies to him.” Mai’s icy tone said whoever was here would be lucky to leave the casino intact.

Stan knew better than to touch her when she was in this mood. “How about when we go inside, I do the talking?”

Her eyes narrowed to dark slits. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He matched her glare. “First of all, we’re not blowing the vampire-fae treaty out of the water to satisfy our egos. Second, if he is fae, that means he is up to something, but ripping off the casino isn’t his primary objective.”

After a moment, her body relaxed a fraction. Stan wondered if the other two men could even discern the difference. Mai’s chin lifted. “Questioning a suspect is your prerogative, sir.”

“Thank you.” He inclined his head.

He strode toward the interrogation room marked with a large number “2” on the door. But when he yanked it open, nothing could have prepared him for the person waiting inside.

“Riley?”

She deliberately flipped her deep red hair back and gave him a sultry once over. “Hi, big boy. How’s things hanging?”

Monday, August 5, 2019

Reality Bites - Chapter 1

Yes, Reality Bites is on preorder at all the major e-book retailers and will be available in less than two weeks!

REALITY BITES - Coming August 15!

Being a regular human in the supernatural world is never easy, something Mai Osaka learned before she could walk. So when her boyfriend’s fairy ex strolls into the casino where Mai is head of security, she knows there’s more to the Seelie’s story than she’s telling. But can Mai figure out the real plan and who’s behind it before the fae pull the biggest heist in the history of Las Vegas?

Amazon, all countries
Apple
Barnes & Noble
Google Play
Kobo
Smashwords

In the meantime, here's a sneak peek...

=============================
Mai Osaka stood next to the limousine and waited for the small private jet to taxi closer to the Augustine hanger. St. James hanger, she told herself sternly. She wasn’t the only one who’d slipped over appropriate names and conduct the last two weeks. But as the head of security for the Las Vegas branch of the Western United States Vampire Coven, she was expected to set the example.

Even if she was a Normal.

Sharp-edged sunshine bounced off the tarmac and penetrated her standard black pantsuit and boots. Her extra dark sunglasses barely held back the rays. The only color marring her standard uniform was the blue and gold watch with the obnoxious cartoon duck on it. It wasn’t her taste, but when the new boss’s wife gives you a gift, you don’t argue. Especially since said wife was a brand-spanking new goddess of death who wasn’t entirely in control of her powers at times.

The enforcer standing next to Mai pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his face and neck.

“I don’t know how you can stand this heat, Ms. Osaka,” Thad Wolford said.

“It’s a dry heat.” Her standard reply. Personally, she couldn’t wait to climb back inside the limo. It was a wonder her sidearm and watch didn’t rust with the amount of sweat overwhelming her antiperspirant and trickling down her torso and arms.

Thad grunted in response. Given that his wife was a werecoyote, noncommittal sounds probably kept the peace at home. The former small-town sheriff didn’t feel the need to make constant small talk, which was why she brought him instead of one of the were or witch enforcers.

The men standing by the fuel tanker didn’t say much either as they waited, too. But maybe that was more due to the hearing protection they wore.

Engines whined as Miko Osaka guided the coven jet into an “L” turn and a stop at a safe distance. She waved off the tow vehicle and cut the power. Crap. That meant her little sister couldn’t even stay for dinner.

The jet’s door swung down, creating the staircase to disembark, while the workers set about refueling the plane. Mai’s heart did a little pitter-pat when Stan Gryffudd ducked his six-six frame through the opening. Brown and green canvas bags were slung over both broad shoulders. A tight scarlet t-shirt covered his torso. Equally tight jeans covered his lower half. His white-blond crewcut literally glowed under the afternoon sun. His long-legged stride made a beeline for the limo.

Thad popped the trunk, met Stan, and offered to carry the bags. The new general manager of the Karnak Hotel and Casino flashed a genial smile and politely refused the offer of assistance.

Unsure of what to do, Thad shot a confused look at Mai. She shrugged, and he backed off. When Duncan St. James had been Normal, he was nobility. Before him, Selene and Ptolemy Antonius had been literal royalty. They all expected a certain amount of deference from the people who served them in Vegas beyond the usual vampire hierarchy bullshit.

Between those three, Grandfather Kensai had been in charge of the coven’s interests here for two and a half very short years. But even his Normal status as a military man had carried through with how he expected the staff to behave. Frankly, all the vampires, employees, and Family in Las Vegas were looking at a huge adjustment.

A vampire would have been a better choice, but with a potential cure for the virus on the horizon, there wasn’t anyone Duncan totally trusted. By the same token, he couldn’t appoint a Normal Family member. The other vampire masters would consider such a move a sign of weakness.

Which meant he needed someone with supernatural abilities. Someone who could protect themselves, like Stan.

“Getting maudlin in your old age, sis?” A devilish grin lit Miko’s face as she approached the limo.

“No.”

“Right.” She wrapped her arms around Mai. “I don’t need telepathy to tell when you’re thinking about Grandfather,” she whispered.

Mai returned her baby sister’s hug. “What happened? Vegas was supposed to be your last stop today,” she said softly. Miko released Mai and scowled. “Alex happened. I swear he’s getting more paranoid than Duncan ever was as chief enforcer. He scrambled travel plans because he thinks someone leaked the originals.” She held up her hands. “So don’t ask me where I’m going next. I’m not allowed to tell you.”

There was more to the story, but Mai wouldn’t press right now. Alex Stanton didn’t panic over nothing, and she was fairly certain Stan would tell her later.

“In the meantime, I get to babysit new pilots.” She gestured toward the cockpit. A vaguely familiar face looked back at them. The man behind the windshield smiled and waved enthusiastically.

Mai saluted him before turning to her sister. “Who is that?”

“Tom Wellington.”

“Who?”

“One of the Billings, Montana, vamps.” Miko rolled her eyes. “He’s been a bush pilot for a century but I’ve got to get him up to snuff on jets.”

The name finally clicked in Mai’s head. “Wait a minute. Doesn’t he write romance novels?”

“Yep, with his wife.” Miko grimaced. “They’re branching out to same sex romance.”

“And he’s using our need for additional pilots to do a little research?” Mai tamped down on her irritation on her sister’s behalf. Even though they’d been raised by their bisexual grandfather and his male partner, Miko still got weird bout being out of the closet herself.

A shadow loomed over them. “You don’t have to say anything about your personal life to Tom, Miko.” Stan’s voice rumbled with his displeasure.

“It’s not him. It’s me.” Miko fidgeted, which wasn’t like her at all. Finally, she said, “Brittany and I broke up last night.”

Mai cupped her sister’s cheeks with both hands. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Because it was a long time coming.” Miko sighed. “With the demon craziness the last couple of years, coven matters have taken precedence in my life.” She drew Mai’s hands from her face and held them. “We’ll have a sister night soon. I promise. And I’ll tell you everything, but right now, I have a schedule to keep before a certain vampire has a cow.” “All right, but I expect a call in the next two days.”

They hugged again before Miko jogged back to the little jet and climbed inside. The fuel truck had already departed. She waved at Mai before she closed the door. A minute later, the engines roared to life, and the plane headed for the line of aircraft awaiting clearance for take-off.

“Mai, would you ride in the back with me?” Stan said.

“Yes, sir.” She tried not to shiver at his voice. It wasn’t his fault he was part fae. Half the time, she didn’t think he even realized the affect he had on her.

Thad opened the rear door for them and stiffly held it.

And despite protocol, Stan insisted she climb in first. Mai bit her tongue to keep from chewing him out and wasting even more time. Duncan had to adjust his normal responses when Caesar appointed him the city master of Las Vegas. Her experience with Stan indicated it would take twice as much time to retrain him.

Once they were settled in the back seat, she looked at Stan. “Did something happen?”

He rubbed his temple. “Yeah. A car bombing in Seattle two days ago. We’re pretty sure the target was Donna Whitefeather.” Thad climbed into the driver’s seat. “Is she okay?” Something else bothered the other enforcer than the attempt on Donna’s life. His slight accent became noticeable only when it was personal.

Stan reached into the satchel he still carried. “Shrapnel cuts and mild burns. Nothing the V-virus couldn’t handle, but one of her Normal nieces and the girl’s were boyfriend were killed. Pissed doesn’t begin to cover Donna’s mood.”

“Suspects?” Mai thumbed through the reports. As she suspected, the additional attacks weren’t limited to Seattle, or even the western U.S.

“The Vampire Liberation Front is claiming responsibility.” Stan shook his head wearily. “Despite Caesar’s fears of an all-out civil war, they’re the only real problem. And the incidents with them have been limited to guerilla tactics.” A particular name sent a trill of worry down Mai’s back. Her eyes met Stan’s. “Dare Coven?”

“What about Dare Coven?” Thad asked as he guided the limo down the service road around the airport.

“An explosives-filled van rammed into Virginia’s main house in Maryland at twelve-oh-five in the afternoon last week,” Mai answered as she read. “Three daytime enforcers died. Virginia and her inner circle weren’t there at the time, and the surviving staff were able to get the two vampires in residence to safety. That doesn’t make sense. Virginia’s on their side when it comes to the cure.”

“So far she hasn’t accused Aug—” Stan sighed. So Mai wasn’t the only one slipping. “She hasn’t accused St. James of sponsoring the VLF, but Duncan’s concerned that was the terrorists’ intent. The DNA of the driver matched one of Caesar’s grand-nephews who remained loyal during Selene’s rebellion.”

“It says here his wife reported him missing two weeks ago,” Mai said.

“Yeah, he was supposed to pick up his kids from school and never showed.” Tension bled off Stan.

“They could have threatened to kill his kids when they nabbed him,” Thad offered.

His suggestion sent a chill through Mai. Was that the real reason Miko and her girlfriend had broken up? The possibility of harm coming to the woman she loved might have driven her baby sister to do something stupid.

Mai frowned as she looked at Stan. “Those kind of stunts will attract too much Normal attention.”

“Alex thinks that’s their plan,” he replied.

“Why out themselves if they want to stay vampires?” Thad said. “That makes no gahddamn sense.” He flipped the turn signal and pulled into the second left turn lane to exit the airport.

Mai sighed. “There’s more than a few sadists who enjoy spreading fear on both sides. If they get enough people afraid, no one will take the cure or the vaccine. They can increase their numbers and make a play for world domination.” “And how do we know this Vampire Liberation Front are actually vampires?” Thad asked.

“What are you suggesting?” Stan asked.

“The ones with the most to gain from the collapse of the Vampire Nation are the fairies,” Thad bit out as he drove down the Strip.

“Wolford,” she snapped.

“I’m just saying what none of you will,” he growled back.

“And I will not tolerate racial slurs from any of my staff. Is that understood?” Mai said. Good. Now, she knew where things stood with him and could take steps.

After a long moment, Thad said. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you have a particular problem with me or just sidhe in general?” Stan asked.

“I had a bunch of Unseelie murdering people in my jurisdiction.” Thad glared at them in the rearview mirror. “Ah. You’re the former sheriff from Ohio.” Stan shifted to look at Mai as well. “Wanna explain to me what’s going on?” There wasn’t any tickle in her mind indicating Stan read it, but then, he never needed to resort to those tactics. She shrugged. “I wanted to see how Mr. Wolford would react given his previous encounters.”

Thad didn’t say anything more until he pulled in front of the Karnak’s private entrance and stopped the limo. He turned to glare at her over the driver’s seat. “You expected me to shoot the new boss?”

“Given Anne’s report of what happened in Millersburg, it was a concern of mine.” She returned his glare. “Considering your use of inappropriate language, it seems my concerns were warranted.”

Thad sucked on his teeth for a moment before he turned to Stan. “I apologize, Mr. Gryffudd. It won’t happen again.”

“Good.” Stan scowled at the Normal. “I’d hate to start my tenure here by turning you into a mushroom for insubordination.”

Mai made a sound low in her throat. She didn’t need Stan making his first day here a total disaster.

He shot her a look. “I’m just teasing him.”

“I wouldn’t go there if I were you, Mr. Gryffudd.” Thad smirked. “You need Mai. She’s the only one I’ve met who can keep Sam Ridgeway in line.”

“Really?” Stan’s left eyebrow quirked upward. “This could be an interesting assignment.”

“You have a series of meetings tonight, sir,” she reminded him. “You might want to get settled and cleaned up before then.”

Thad climbed out of the driver’s seat and circled the limo to the right side.

“Slave driver,” Stan whispered in her ear.

A shiver ran through her body that she managed to quell before Thad opened the passenger door. She climbed out on unsteady legs. Thankfully, Stan’s attention was on his luggage after he followed her out of the vehicle. Maybe she should have Kunal deal with their new boss. Her judgment was too…compromised when it came to Stan.

It wasn’t exactly either of their faults really. Maybe her cousin Tiffany was right that Murphy was the one true god. Mai swallowed a sigh. Anything that could go wrong had gone wrong in her life.

When Thad drove off to return the limo to the coven’s vehicle pool, she led Stan to the private elevator for the penthouse. Sanjay, one of Kunal’s Normal cousins, guarded the alcove. He pulled a pin made of Olympian bronze from his lapel.

She held out her hand, and he poked her little finger. Bright red blood welled on her skin, and Sanjay handed her an antiseptic wipe. While she cleaned off the excess blood, he repeated the procedure with Stan.

The enforcer inclined his head. “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Gryffudd.”

“I’m happy you’re not poking me with an iron pin,” he said dryly.

A wry smile tilted Sanjay’s mouth. “As Ms. Ridgeway says, it takes something a little more to detect the dino demons.” Mai headed for the elevator door.

“Have you had any more incidents here?” Stan asked, his long legs keeping pace.

“Not since Master St. James and his wife moved back to Los Angeles.”

“So six months, then?”

She didn’t want to talk about what had happened. The demon who had gotten into the kitchen still gave her nightmares. “Your biometrics are already encoded for access. Place your hand on the plate.” She indicated the black plastic panel on the wall. “And say your name.”

She turned to leave when he grabbed her arm. “Who else has access to the penthouse?”

His inquiry only reminded her of her limitations as a Normal. Something she had never questioned until the dinosaur demons had started their campaign against Sam. “Unfortunately, I haven’t devised a way to keep out all deities.” He flashed his bright, charming smile. “I meant staff? Security?”

“Only myself, Kunal Saravati, and your executive assistant Staci Warner. One of us has to authorize access for anyone from another department such as housekeeping or room service. The enforcer on duty checks everyone who goes upstairs, but he or she can’t control the elevator.” At his odd expression, she added. “St. James is the only coven looking for dinosaur demons. They’re not bothering anyone else.”

“I’m aware. But maybe you should come up?” Another grin. “To make sure I understand all the security measures. I’d hate to set off a false alarm by brushing my teeth.”

Her back stiffened. “I adhere to the standards set by our chief enforcer.”

Stan glanced around and lowered his voice. “C’mon, Mai. No one’s going to suspect anything by you showing me around.”

She could feel her resolve melt. They’d never been assigned to the same city, so things between them had slipped under everyone’s radar for years. But Stan Gryffudd had become her private addiction, and she didn’t know how she’d deal with their new status.

And if she asked for a transfer, Duncan would want to know why since she was the highest-ranked enforcer within the Las Vegas branch of the coven. Hell, she had five years of seniority on Kunal, who’d been perfectly content with his string of drycleaners in Houston until Selene’s rebellion.

“Please?” Stan's pale blue eyes didn’t glow like a vamp’s, but they held a different kind of intensity. One that dissolved the rest of her control into a massive puddle.

She mutely nodded.

He slapped his palm on the panel and said his name. With a ding, the doors parted, and they stepped inside the car. He pressed the “PH” button and glanced upward, no doubt noticing the security cameras.

“Guess I’m not sneaking a woman up here without you knowing.”

She didn’t take his bait. “There’s a facility outside of the city that caters to supernatural clientele.” She couldn’t suppress her grimace. “It’s my understanding Selene made frequent use of their services.”

“Are you equating me with that bitch?”

Mai suppressed a smile at his aggrieved tone. “Of course not, sir.”

He frowned at the panel. “Is ‘L3’ the old safehouse vault?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe we should clear it out. We may need it if we catch one of these VLF bastards.”

She chuckled. “Unfortunately, we cannot at this time.”

“Why not?”

“Sam’s storing some…courtship presents from previous suitors that she cannot exactly return. We don’t have any other adequate facility to put them.”

Stan groaned. “Should I ask?”

“The worst is a rosebush Ares gave her. It drinks blood, and has a tendency to wander around if it’s not locked up.”

“And she didn’t take it with her to L.A. because…?”

Mai looked up at Stan. “Do you really have to ask that?”

He rubbed his forehead. “Forget I said that. No interfering in other people’s marriages. I blame jetlag.”

The elevator doors slid open. Mai was pleased Staci had followed her suggestions. Greenery filled the penthouse living room. Compared to Duncan’s minimalist tastes, it almost felt crowded with the multitude and variety of potted plants.

His gaze swept the area. “Did you do this?”

“Not in my job description, but since you couldn’t bring your greenhouse with you—”

Stan dropped his bags, grabbed her and pressed her against the wall. His warm mouth covered hers. And she willingly gave in to him.

She was breathless when his attention turned to her neck.

“Morrigan, help me,” he murmured against her skin. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”

She chuckled. “I can guess.” It didn’t help that his huge hands cupped her ass, and her legs were now wrapped around his waist.

“A quickie is not what I had in mind for the next time I saw you—”

Mai’s walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Ms. Osaka, we need you in holding.” Mike Warner’s voice. Despite the werecoyote’s youth, he didn’t call her unless it was a real problem. Hell, he’d been the one to realize the new busboy wasn’t remotely humanoid.

Her forehead fell to Stan’s shoulder. “And we’re not even going to get that.”

He lowered her back to the floor, making a point of sliding her body down his length. Like she wasn’t frustrated enough already.

She unclipped her radio from her belt. “What’s the issue, Mike?”

“We have a player from Marley’s roulette table who was a little too lucky. She smelled ozone.”

Mai groaned. Last thing they needed was a cheating witch in the middle of all the Karnak’s other problems. But Marley had been running roulette eighty years ago when she’d been Normal, and she had an eye for the scammers.

“I’ll go down with you,” Stan said. “A witch won’t randomly fling spells if I’m there.”

Mai pressed the response button. “We’re on our way.” She released the button before she said, “And they’ll be fucking lucky if I don’t stick them in the vault with the blood-sucking rose plant.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Last Reminders

Lots of things are happening in a short period, so here's a list:

1) Today's the last day A Question of Balance will be on sale for 99-cents at most e-book retailers.

2) Also, Google Play changed its terms and conditions, so they stopped discounting e-books there. While the sale price for A Question of Balance is correct at 99-cents, the rest of my library isn't correct, so please wait a day or two for the new prices to take affect before purchasing any of my other books in Google Play.

3) Reality Bites is available for preorder on Amazon. The rest of the preorder links at other retailers will be live by the end of the week.

4) Speaking of Reality Bites, I'll start posting chapters next week.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Matter of Death is LIVE!

Yep, folks! It's a release day! My fourth this year, which alone makes 2019 so much greater than the last five years.

Even better, I've figured out preorders on all the major retailers, so the latest Justice novel is available to everyone at the same time! Including the paperback! (Though you may have to get your local book store to order it from Ingrams for you.)

Below are the blurb and links. And just to warn you, you may need some hankies at the end of the book.

BLURB
Two skinwalkers controlling Tandor had been bad enough, but then a demon army waltzed up to the city gates…

Anthea, Luc and their allies are trapped inside the border city of Tandor. They’ve lost all contact with the rest of Issura and their neighboring countries. And if the demons get by Tandor, the entire continent will become their dinner table. But the city is low on food and more importantly, water.

Can Anthea and Luc find a solution? Or will they be forced to activate the final defense spells of Death to stop the demons, and kill everyone in Tandor and themselves in the process?

Magic and mayhem have never been this desperate. Or this fatal.

Amazon
Apple
Barnes & Noble
Google Play
Kobo
Smashwords

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 6

All right, everyone! Here's the last sample chapter before next Monday's release. Preorders are set up in all the major retailers!

And a final reminder, the posted chapters will not be in the same order in the book. Writers are weird that way. LOL

=====================================

By the time I reached the Neighbor's Gate, the demons had ceased their assault. They oozed back to their original positions in alternating rows. It was the only description I could think of for their movements.

I leaned over the parapet of the watch tower. Well, not all of them were back in formation. A dozen lay at the foot of the gate. Dead from the way the blackness spread from the corpses to the surrounding packed earth.

Except the odd contamination only I could see didn’t leach from one of the bodies.

“Reverend Father,” I called out.

He strode over from a consultation with priests from Conflict and Light. “What do you see?”

“The third demon from the right lying below the gate isn’t dead.”

He signaled for the Comanche Light priest he had been speaking with to join us. “We have a demon playing possum. Could you encourage them not to try this particular trick?”

The priest leaned over the parapet and launched a light ball at the demon. With a loud screech, it raced around as it burned. None of its fellows tried to help it. They remained as silent and as still in their ranks as they had before. The demon fell quiet a moment before it collapsed into a pile of red ash. No contamination spread from the cooling remains.

The Reverend Father frowned before he turned to me. “How does a dead demon look different to you than a live one?”

“They don’t look different per se.” I shook my head. “Eggs and grimoires tend to contaminate what they touch, so the item takes on the color of demons.” I peered down at the corpses. “These are the first demons I’ve seen that weren’t killed by Light magic.” I looked at the Reverend Father again and shrugged. “Maybe our brother of Light are the antidote to the contamination.”

The Reverend Father folded his arms over his chest. “Why those things, and not an actually demon?”

I shrugged. “That’s something we’ve been trying to figure out ourselves. The single egg smuggled into Orrin last fall turned the cask it was carried in, but the demon already residing with the imperial sorcerer in the Jing embassy didn’t leave any traces. In fact, it looked like a sash until it realized I was a danger to it.”

“And the grimoires?” the Light priest asked.

“The grimoires—” I couldn’t help a shudder at the memory of touching the one High Sister Gerd had tried to sell to the renegades. “The leather of the grimoires appears to be made of demon skin, except the one I confiscated felt…” I shook myself to drive away the whispers I still heard in my dreams. “I would have sworn it was still conscious.”

“But you still aren’t sure if it’s a difference between the demons summoned to our plane and those that are hatched here?” The Light priest cocked his head as he regarded me.

I shook my head again. “How did you know?”

He grinned. “Some of us have paid attention to High Brother Luc’s reports from Orrin.” His attention turned back to the Reverend Father. “May I dispose of the rest of the demon corpses, sir? I wouldn’t want anyone trying to make them into books.”

“Do it,” the Reverend Father ordered.

While the Light priest burned the rest of the demon corpses lying at the base of Neighbor's Gate, the Reverend Father tilted his head. We retreated away from the edge of the parapet.

“Brother Bumblebee relayed your recommendation of keeping a guard at the tunnel entrances inside the Temples,” he said quietly. “I’d like to hear your account of the demon’s attempt to breach Balance.”

I laid out our actions, including the odd behavior of Elizabeth during my rewind of time. “I’m not sure what to think concerning her behavior anymore,” I finished lamely.

“Yet you are still suspicious that she may be part of the original conspiracy?” He eyed me.

“Or the skinwalkers could have broken her.”

“I recall hearing her voicing the same concern when I eavesdropped on your conversation.”

“I don’t know if a truthspell could even work if she isn’t aware of her deception.” I hugged myself. There were simply too many unknowns in this equation. If any of the clergy from Tandor’s Temple of Knowledge were still in the city, surely they would be driven mad trying to calculate the outcome.

“Do the truthspell anyway to relieve both yours and Justice Elizabeth’s minds.”

“Yes, sir.” A little part of me was glad someone else was making the difficult decisions for once. My body literally ached from shouldering so much responsibility. I turned to leave.

“And, Anthea?”

I faced the Reverend Father again. “Yes, sir?”

“Get some real rest before you do the truthspell.” He grinned. “I don’t need you and Luc accidentally cooking your brains because you’ve been too busy following a certain other mandate issued by Light.”

I should have been embarrassed or furious at the Reverend Father’s overly familiar jocularity. Instead, it just reminded me how exhausted I was.

And thanks to my birth mother, I’d never be able to conceive a child even if I had wanted to. But there was no sense in rehashing the pain of my past.

“If we ever have the energy to get around to fulfilling the Light mandate, we’ll be sure to use the private facilities inside Love and lock the door,” I said wryly.

The Reverend Father chuckled behind me as I climbed down the ladder.

* * *

I repeated the Reverend Father’s odd conversation to Luc when I returned to Light. We sat in the high brother’s quarters and picked over our rations. The innkeepers were cooking for the entire city, and they did the best they could with the ingredients on hand. We’d be looking at this meal differently in another couple of weeks when the water ran out.

Luc blew out a deep breath. “All the ladies of Tandor, civilian and Temple, are taking the mandate seriously. I fear that’s why Bumblebee is hiding inside Balance. He begged me not to tell anyone where he was.”

I winced as I tore off a bite of flatbread. “He’s not interest men, is he?”

Luc shook his head. “The problem is he’s an attractive young man.” He waved a hand. “With the destruction and deaths here, the women of child-bearing age could use the stipend for producing a child with a Temple talent. He’s had an overabundance of offers, and some weren’t exactly subtle.”

While I had a bit of sympathy for poor Bumblebee, I had difficulty swallowing the bread in my mouth. Luc was ignoring our obvious problem, but one of us needed to address the issue.

“You should be taking advantage of the women’s hospitality in that regard.” I stared at my plate. “Especially with the Spring Rituals only a few days away.”

He held out his hand. “I couldn’t do that to you, no matter the reason.”

I looked up at him. “You don’t have a choice, Luc. You need to produce children with your talents. I can’t give you those children.”

“Since when have you cared about edicts from the home Temples?”

“Since we didn’t ride for Cant after the Samael DiRoy affair.” Maybe he really had thought I was joking after the Reverend Mother of Balance sentenced me to the Balance seat of Orrin. I wasn’t sure how serious I was until this moment. Luc pulled back his hand. “If we’d done that, we’d be demon fodder by now. And that’s assuming we weren’t tracked down and executed for defying your sentence.”

“It doesn’t change the fact you’ve been given specific orders from the home Temple.”

“I am not arguing with you about this.” He seized his crutches and headed for the door to his quarters.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to deliver a research report to Reverend Father Nizhé'é'.” Before I could reply, he slammed the door behind him.

It was so rare for Luc and me to argue, especially over a personal matter. And yet…

Was this my fault? Did I really want a declaration of his undying devotion in the midst of a demon invasion? Or was I simply a jealous lover?

The survival of human race might very well depend on what happened in Tandor. And here we were fighting, over him laying with other women. Which he’d been ordered to do.

My birth mother’s attempts to end her pregnancy left me blind and unable to bear children. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t angry with her. She had been a selfish fool. My grandmother Thalia had been just as much a selfish fool in her own way for pursuing her illegal affair with Kam bearing Gerd.

Here I was, acting just as selfishly and foolishly. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t have children after all. I’d only be cursing them with my family’s idiocy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 5

My apologies for not posting a chapter last week. I was literally awake for twenty-six hours straight in order to finish the book, edit it, and send it to my formatter.

Just a reminder--these chapters will appear in a different order and some in a different form in the final book.
==========================================
The bells tolled Third Evening. Shi Hua’s stride slowed as she approached Jeremy’s quarters. She thought she was ready for what they were about to do.

“You don’t have to do this, Sister.” Mateqai, ever her shadow, stood at her side.

“We’ve been ordered—”

“That’s not what I meant.” He took her shoulders and turned her to face him. “Love making should be a pleasurable experience for all participants. Right now, you are upset and anxious—”

“And we may all die in four days.” A bitter laugh erupted from her.

“That, too,” Mateqai remarked dryly. “What I meant was it might be better to wait until you’re in a better frame of mind. Like in five days.”

She shook her head, and her second laugh was much lighter. “If I don’t do it now, I’m afraid I never will.”

He nodded and an odd expression flashed so fast she thought she imagined it. It almost seemed like regret.

Warden Tadhg stood watch at Jeremy’s door as they approached. He inclined his head before he knocked out a specific pattern. The deep thunk of the bolt sliding back set Shi Hua’s nerves dancing again. The door opened, but instead of his normal sleepwear, he was still dressed in his uniform.

“If you need anything before morning, summon me, Sister.” While Mateqai’s words were directed at her, he aimed a very pointed look at Jeremy.

“I will,” she promised before she sucked in a deep breath and stepped across the threshold.

* * *

When the sun peeked over the eastern mountains the next morning, Shi Hua’s horse pranced nervously beneath her thighs as she stood in formation outside Government Gate. Jeremy’s steed stood contentedly and munched on an apple from last fall. The animal’s mood probably had more to do with the idiotic smile Jeremy wore.

“Would you please change your expression?” she hissed to her senior.

“What’s wrong with my expression?” If anything, his grin grew wider.

“You look like a boy who’s been deflowered by the entire population of Love.” She glared at him.

“Well…” He shrugged. “The first part is true.”

She rolled her eyes. “Would you like the magistrate to post a formal announcement?”

His smile faded. “Wasn’t it…nice for you, too?”

“It was…fine.” So she had to imagine she was with Sister Claudia of Love in order to finish. The last thing she wanted to do was to hurt Jeremy’s feelings.

“Fine? It was only fine?”

“Can we not talk about this right now?” she begged.

“You were the one angry because I smiled,” he snapped.

“Because someone shouldn’t be smiling like a fool when they’re about to march into a war!” She said the last part louder than she meant to. The priests and wardens around them stared at them.

Mateqai nudged his horse between theirs. “With all due respect, can you two save the lovers’ spat until after we deal with the demons?” He backed his steed to resume their position in the ranks.

Shi Hua’s face heated. Her warden was right. This wasn’t the time or place to be discussing such things. But then, they shouldn’t be discussing them at all. There shouldn’t even be a reason to discuss them.

And here, she believed her life had become complicated when she was recruited as Ambassador Quan’s bodyguard.

No pennants or banners flew like they would at home in Jing. No banter or challenges to each others’ weapons prowess either. In fact, the Issuran forces were terribly quiet. To them, there was no glory in killing the enemy.

There was even less glory at the possibility of killing their own people. Surprisingly, Crown Princess Chiara agreed to Light’s mad plan.

The clergy from Knowledge stayed up the entire night to calculate materials and trajectories for the modified fireworks. Thief drafted anyone from the other orders who weren’t accompanying the army to help with the production.

Well, anyone except the priests of Light and the priestesses they took to bed.

Shi Hua glanced behind her. Her fellow clergy from Standora all had idiotic smiles similar to Jeremy’s. Sister Dragonfly was right. Men did go insane when it came to bedplay.

A blast of a ram’s horn echoed from the direction of the National Road. Tension rose at the signal. An itch tickled the back of her mind.

Bring them home.

Shi looked over her shoulder. Sister Dragonfly’s height and scarlet robes stood out at the top of the watch tower. But it was the smaller black-cowled figure huddled next to her who had spoken. Chief Warden Little Bear stood on the other side of Yanaba. The young justice must have thrown a major fit for the healers to allow her out of bed.

We will.

The troops in front of them began to move, and Shi Hua nudged her horse into motion. She sent up a silent prayer to her patron deity she hadn’t just lied to her friend.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Hero De Facto Is on Sale!!

This will be the last time Hero De Facto will be discounted on Amazon US this year.

If you didn't pick up an e-book copy of Hero De Facto when it was free, it is currently $0.99 for the next 33 hours starting with this post at 11 AM EDT. After that, the price will increase by $1.00 each 33 hours until the e-book is back to its regular price.

Buy Hero De Facto at Amazon US

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 4

As I've said in the other samples, I'm posting in the order of how A Matter of Death originally began two years ago. Cthulu! I can't believe it's been that long already. 😄

This series is much more ambitious in scope than anything I've written before. There's things I need to layer in that will make sense in the next three books. So the changes you'll see in the published version expand the original story. But it'll give you a taste of the craziness a writer goes through to produce a readable book.

==================

If the demons were in the tunnels, that meant—

“Oh, sweet Balance!”

Luc’s expression was equally shocked before he roared, “Go!”

I jerked on my borrowed boots, grabbed my sword, and ran. Tyra appeared out of the cross hallway.

“Send clergy to the vacant temples!” I ordered as I passed her. “Demons are in the tunnels!”

She whirled and started shouting the Diné words for “demon” and “tunnel”. If nothing else over the past few days of the siege, we’d learned the important terms in order to communicate with each other. With the alarm bells ringing, people raced to their assigned posts, some in a half-dressed state.

One of the Diné Lights priests caught up with me at the cracked marble steps into Balance. Elizabeth would have been a better choice to augment my efforts, but my doubts about her loyalty would have leaked through our link.

The bones and debris had been cleaned out of the main courtroom and the hallway to the sleeping quarters. Magic tingled behind me as the priest ignited a light ball. In my hurry, I’d forgotten it was dark inside the Temple to normally sighted folk.

ANTHEA! Reverend Father Nizhé'é' silent speech echoed through my head.

Whatever is happening at the gates are a feint. I sent a wordless impression of what Luc and I had felt. The demons are in the tunnels.

He issued orders through silent speech, ones that were echoed by a high brother of Conflict from each of the four nations trapped inside Tandor in their native languages. I had to tune out the noise inside my head.

Elizabeth’s former quarters were as bare as High Brother Dav’s had been when we arrived in Tandor. We’d destroyed anything organic in the Temple with our efforts to take out one of the skinwalkers. I skidded to stop before the sandstone block that served as the Balance entrance to Tandor’s tunnel system. My sword clattered to the floor when I dropped to my knees and held out my palms.

Alien magic scratched on my psyche from the other side of the wall. It seemed…hesitant.

“Does the energy seem odd to you, Justice?” the Diné Light priest asked in the Peaceful Sea trade tongue as he knelt beside me.

I frowned. “It’s too much to hope they’ve learned to fear me.”

The Light priest chuckled. “I pray to Thief you’re wrong. They should fear you.”

The magic within the block was nearly as low as it had been after I activated the Balance defenses. The demons must sense the weakness here.

We were fools. We should have charged this entrance once we’d retaken the city. We should have brought down the tunnels with flashbangs when we had the chance. If only we could prime a light ball like a flashbang—

A memory went off like the Jing device inside my head. I turned to the Light priest.

“There’s spell in the Light library that can produce the same effect as flashbang. Do you know it?”

He looked at me as if I were mad. Maybe I was.

“Yes, but it won’t do us any good on this side of the wall, Justice.”

“I’m going to put it on the other side of the wall, only seven days ago. The last time this passage was opened. Can you delay the spell’s activation?”

“I can’t.” A sly look appeared on his face. “But you could.”

Three spells enfolded on each other. Well, it couldn’t be any more difficult than the layers of a truthspell, the blocker, and the counter to the blocker. Balance help us if I was wrong.

I frowned and looked around the bare room. “Once I’ve frozen your flashbang spell, get in the bathing room.”

“Why?”

“In case this goes very badly.” I grinned at the Light priest. “You can tell High Brother Luc I was an idiot if you survive.”

The demon magic scratched more insistently at the weak essence of Balance. We needed to hurry. I motioned for him to start the flashbang spell. On his last two syllables, I concentrated and murmured the time freeze spell.

Very carefully, he set the contained explosion on the floor beside me and scrambled into Elizabeth’s bathing room. I tried not to think about the possibility of my freeze spell failing before I finished, but I couldn’t freeze the whole room. Nor could I put it in a container since I couldn’t guarantee I could pass a three-dimensional object through time. Balance take me, I wasn’t sure I could pass energy through time, but I was out of options.

I sucked in a deep breath and concentrated on seven days ago when Elizabeth and I came in to close the passageway to the tunnels. Time rewound. I shoved the writhing ball of Balance and Light magic through the block that was there and not there.

Footsteps in the hallway sent a trill of alarm through me, and I jerked back. There were voices. I shuddered when I recognized my own and Elizabeth’s. We were coming to seal the passage.

I knew how cynical and suspicious I could be. If I saw myself, I could quite literally destroy my own spell. I scrambled to the bathing room, yanked my cowl low over my face, and folded my hands into my sleeves.

The faint outlines of the time ghost versions of Elizabeth and me entered the room. We didn’t appear to notice the spells on the floor of the tunnel. Of course not. The magic was literally a few minutes behind them unless or until I yanked it forward.

Elizabeth cocked her head as if she heard something. She looked over her shoulder, and her eyes widened.

She was totally blind. She couldn’t possibly see me, either as a real person or a time echo. It was the whole reason our order needed someone to recite events when we rewound time. But her mouth opened, and she reached out toward the past me beside her.

I held my index finger to my lips and prayed to Balance Elizabeth would take the hint. Finally, she nodded. I relaxed and let the timeline run forward. When time synched again, I yanked on my other spell.

A crack of thunder pounded against the wall. It was followed by screech of angry and injured demons. However, the scratching of their magic against the Temple stopped.

“That was impressive.”

I jumped at the voice. The Diné Light priest. In my panic at Elizabeth being able to perceive me, I’d forgotten he was in here, too.

“I hope the demons were impressed as well.” I marched over to the wall, knelt by the block once again, and placed my palms on the sandstone. The alien presence of the demons seemed to be receding. Despite their efforts, the weak seal on the passage was intact.

For now.

“The Reverend Father will need to assign watches on all the Temples.” I rose to my feet and picked up my scabbard.

The Light priest nodded. “I’ll stay here and keep guard. He will want your report, and he’ll need your vision if the demons still assault the city gates.”

“Thank you—” I cocked my head. Despite real effort on my part, I still had trouble with people’s names, but I was fairly sure the priest and I hadn’t been formally introduced.

He smiled. “My public name is Bumblebee.”

“Bumblebee?”

He shrugged. “It was a childhood nickname. My grandmother said I was destined for Light because I could not stay away from sunflowers.”

“Thank you for assistance, Brother Bumblebee.” I bowed and strode from the room.

The instance of Elizabeth seeming to see me through time bothered me more than I cared to admit. She wasn’t a skinwalker. That I was certain of. But if she were a demon dressed in a human skin, why did she try to warn the past me instead of the demons?

I had too many questions and not enough answers. If we held back the current offensive wave against Tandor, I needed to truthspell Elizabeth. I couldn’t put it off any longer.