Muscle Memory

It’s been years since I rode horses, but I still remember how to sit the transition from a walk to a canter. I remember the slide of your outside leg to trigger the movement, the way you’d sit into the saddle just so, allowing the horse to lift up its front end and change pace. I remember it so well that if I sat on a trained dressage horse, I have no doubt I could accomplish that movement right this instant. I might not be in shape to ride for any great length of time, but my body would know what to do.

I think writing is like that. While I haven’t been on a break since my son was born (don’t ask how fast or at what time of night I wrote most of the Elemental novella), I haven’t been writing with solid regularity like I used to.

But the muscle memory is still there. It’s going to be weak at first, but I’ll hit my stride and the words will come pouring out.

During my school visit, one of the most popular questions was, “What inspires you?” (Right after “If your book gets made into a movie, can I be in it?”)

It was a hard question to answer. Harder than it should be. I told the kids that inspiration can come from anywhere. When I wrote the adult paranormal romance A Wicked Little Rhythm, I came up with Jack, the son of Apollo, and I made him own a music store in downtown Baltimore. I also made him a drummer.

I know nothing about drumming. But my husband had bought Rock Band that Christmas, and we played it a lot. I started thinking, “Hey, a drummer would be a cool character. Now how can I make it paranormal…”

Another student asked how I battle writers block. I think that’s just a matter of planting your ass in the chair and writing something. Anything. If I’m fighting with a scene, I’ll go work on a different one. I’ll write a blog post. I’ll write an email to a friend about something going on in my personal life. I’ll write something.

When I sit down to write, if I’m not feeling it, I’ll go watch dance videos on YouTube. I’m not kidding. Right now, I love the song Without You by David Guetta and Usher, and I’ll go look for people who’ve put up dance videos using that song. Sometimes the dance videos suck. That’s okay; sometimes my writing sucks. Sometimes the dance videos take my breath away. Those are inspiring. It’s art, it’s talent, it’s something completely different from writing, and sometimes that gets me going.

What works for you guys? What doesn’t work?

And since it’s Friday, and since I haven’t done this in forever, I’ll put up a Friday Favorite. Since we just talked about A Wicked Little Rhythm, here’s one of my favorite scenes.

~~~

The store was cool and dark, a welcome escape from the humidity that still hung over the city. Sarah knew she had talked to Jack on their walk back, but she could hardly hear her thoughts over the screaming in her head: He almost KISSED me! And he BELIEVES me! And… he almost KISSED me!
The giddiness was nearly enough to make her pass out.
“You want another soda?” Jack asked.
She started to shake her head, but then she wondered if he was going to lock up and walk her to her car if she refused. Or what if he invited her up to his apartment? Would she say yes? What would that mean? Would saying yes give him the wrong impression? The right one?
She wished she could call Kate.
“Hey.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “Come back to earth. You want another soda?”
“Um, yes,” she said, hoping she was making the right choice. “Please.”
He led her through the curtain into the back room and turned on a few lights, then moved to the little kitchen area. She watched him pull out a can for her and a bottle for himself, studying his silhouette in the light from the refrigerator.
When he straightened, she looked away, not wanting to be caught staring. Her eyes found his drum set, similar to the one on display at the front of the store, but more worn, more used. It made the instruments look comfortable, less intimidating than the ones out front.
“Pick up the sticks and bang on them if you want.”
She jumped, feeling heat on her cheeks. He was right beside her, holding out a soda.
She took the can. “No way.”
He smiled. “Why not? Everybody likes whacking on drums. Believe me. I listen to it all day long.”
“I think I humiliate myself enough when you’re around.” She found she couldn’t meet his eyes. “I’d…ah….listen to you play, though.”
He put the bottle to his lips and took a long drink. He was watching her again, and she couldn’t figure out his expression. “Why?”
She took a sip of her soda, and for the first time in her life, she wished it were something stronger. “Because I want to see if you’re all talk.”
She meant her words to be challenging, something she imagined Kate would say, but she heard them come out too soft, almost coy.
Jack laughed gently, a good sound that made Sarah look up at him again. For an instant, she caught a glimpse of how he must have been before life caught up with him.
“All right.” He pulled a chair away from the table and spun it to face the drums. “Sit.”
She sat.
He took another drink and sat on the stool. “Any requests?”
“Well…” She blushed and shook her head.
His gaze sharpened. “Yes. What?”
She wished she hadn’t said anything. “I just—maybe you could show me what you meant last week? You said you were doing something to that classical song.”
He grinned wickedly and twirled a drum stick through his fingers. “‘Doing something.’ You make it sound obscene. Poor Johann Pachelbel.” His voice turned mockingly aghast. “Some guy’s raping his music, and he’s doing it with a drum stick—”
“Okay, okay!” She was starting to wonder if her cheeks would ever cool. “I’m sorry I said anything at all.”
“Don’t be sorry, Sarah.” He leaned toward a small folding table that was set up on the other side of his drum set. He had to stretch to reach it, and she watched the hem of his tee shirt ride up to expose an inch of skin.
She swallowed, warm again.
“Here. Catch.”
She blinked, and some sense of self preservation helped her snatch the object he’d tossed out of the air. She looked down to find herself holding a remote.
“Turn the stereo on,” he said. “The canon’s not … ah, ready, but find a song you like. I’ll show you what I mean.”
She struggled with the foreign remote, aware again of his eyes on her. She was able to turn the stereo on, but she didn’t recognize the song. Her mouth felt dry as she used the seek button, trying to find something familiar.
“I…I don’t know what I should be looking for,” she said weakly.
“Anything.” She heard him take another sip from his bottle, just as she found a melody she’d at least heard before.
“This,” she said.
He choked on his beer. “Britney Spears? Are you kidding me?”
Flustered, she reached for the remote again. “I’ll find something else—”
“No, leave it.” She heard him mutter something under his breath, and she thought she caught the words boy band. He shook his head and picked up the drum sticks. “At least it’s something different. Turn it up. Drums are loud.”
She held down the volume button until she felt like she was at the club with Kate again. The room had great acoustics—or the stereo was just top-of-the-line—because the sound was excellent. She felt tense that she’d picked the wrong song, that he was somehow making fun of her, that some other shoe would drop and she’d find out this crazy attraction was one big punch line.
Then he started to play.
The music trapped her in her seat. Sarah stared, transfixed, watching the drumsticks blur and slow in time with the music, like they played and all he did was hang on. The song was the same—she’d heard it on the radio a million times. But he added another level somehow, made the song richer, fuller, adding impossible beats and rhythm until she could almost feel the sound pulse against her skin. Gooseflesh raced along her arms, and she shivered.
When the song ended and he struck the last beat, it was like the slam of a door behind a leaving lover.
He sat silent, watching her, the sticks at rest in his hands.
She was breathing too quickly, and she licked her lips. “Do it again.” She pushed a button on the remote.
R & B this time. She barely knew the song, but it wouldn’t have mattered. His talent was powerful—he could have played with no accompaniment and she’d have been mooning after him like a lovesick puppy.
“Again.” She pushed the button, found something older, from the eighties, with a lot of electronic sound.
He tackled it head on, making the song modern somehow, adding a layer of sound she’d never thought the melody was lacking. The beat whispered along her skin, seeming to pulse inside her body. She watched his arms, the way his muscles flexed and pulled with his playing, how his tattoos flashed and danced with the movement.
When he finished, she felt breathless, frozen. His eyes were intense, fueled by silver fire, but he stayed silent. Waiting for her.
She fought to lower the volume, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t make her sound like an idiot.
She failed. “That was … amazing.”
He put his sticks in one hand and stepped out and away from the drum set, and she watched him move toward her. He stopped in front of her chair as she gazed up at him. She wanted to make him play a hundred songs while she just sat and listened.
He touched her chin. “I’m glad you liked it.”
His hand was warm, and she sighed.
Then he held up the sticks. “Your turn.”
She jerked back and shook her head, sudden nerves breaking his spell. “I can’t—do that—”
“Shh.” He reached down and took her hand, pulling her out of the chair. “Come on, you little coward.”
Sarah wanted to balk, but the feel of his hand on hers was compelling, like he was some kind of pied piper with drum sticks. She sat on his stool, the wooden sticks clutched in her sweaty palms, and looked at the array of instruments.
She had to clear her throat twice before she could speak, and even then it was barely more than a strangled whisper. “How do you keep them all straight?”
He pulled a chair over and sat to her right. “You know how you can shut your eyes and touch your nose? You don’t miss and hit your shoulder?” At her nod, he shrugged. “It’s like that. Give me your hand.”
She pulled the sticks in close to her lap. “What if I break something?”
“I’ll kill you.” He scooted closer and picked up her hand, wrapping his fingers around hers.
Her heart rate accelerated immediately.
“Relax,” he said, and he was close enough that his breath brushed her cheek, and she could smell the sweetness of his strawberry milkshake mixing with the scent of his beer. Her face started to drift toward his when she heard bells in her head.
She blinked. Not in her head. He was using her hand to make the stick tap the center of one of the large cymbals on the right, and she realized he’d said something about eighth notes and the number four.
Relax. Was he kidding?
“You do it.” His hand dropped away from hers.
Focus took more effort than it should have, but she found herself wanting to succeed, to impress him like he’d impressed her. She discovered she could tap out an even rhythm on the cymbal without feeling too ridiculous.
Then he said, “Now add your foot.”
His voice was soft, his breath warm against her neck. She almost dropped the stick.
“Relax,” he said again. He touched her knee, his hand lingering for just a moment. “This leg. On every one and every three.”
She swallowed and followed his direction, reveling in the tone of his voice as he softly counted the beat, and distantly realized that she was somehow making it all work.
He shifted his chair so he was still behind her, but now more to her left. She couldn’t imagine him being closer, but he was. She could feel the warmth of his body, achingly close to hers.
“Now your left hand,” he said, picking up her wrist. The ink on his skin made a striking contrast where it ran alongside her pale forearm. “Every two and four.”
He helped, but she got it. The rhythm was strong and clear, and even with his closeness, she felt a bit of elation at her own ability. “I’m playing drums!”
Jack laughed, a little. “See? You don’t need me.” He let go of her left hand, but she was able to hold the beat for a moment.
But his nearness was too intoxicating. Sarah let the sticks come off the drums and pulled them into her lap. She turned to face him, her cheeks warm, feeling giddy and foolish. “Show me something else.”
So he took her face in his hands and brought his lips to hers.
The kiss was insistent, his fingers strong yet gentle against her face, along her neck, in her hair. The sweetness of ice cream lingered on his lips, soft and warm against her own. She wanted to lean into him, to feel the press of his body, but uncertainty held her back.
Then his hand was around her waist, making the decision for her, pulling her against him. She was certain he could feel her heart beating against his chest, especially when his hand slid under the hem of her shirt to find the bare skin of her back. She shivered and gasped against his mouth, and his tongue brushed her lips.
She jerked back, suddenly breathless.
They were on the floor, kneeling, her body still pressed against his. She didn’t remember coming off the stool. Jack’s eyes were very close, alert and piercing silver. His breathing was nearly as rapid as her own.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t apologize.” He used his free hand to smooth her hair back from her face. The hand along the bare skin of her back pulled free, moving to safer territory at her waist. “Sarah.”
The way he said her name made her want to melt against him.  Her face felt hot. “I’m not—I don’t—”
“Shh.” He kissed the edge of her jaw, then her neck. Then her lips again, but slower now, less a demand, more a question. She relaxed into his touch, enjoying the warm sweetness of his mouth against hers.
She couldn’t get enough of touching him. She clutched at his arms and made a low sound against his mouth.
He broke free this time, looking almost as panicked as she’d felt a moment ago. His voice was very rough. “I—I shouldn’t do this.”
She felt her chest cave in until it hurt to breathe. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t!” He took her by the arms. “Don’t apologize to me. You don’t know—You just—” He shut his eyes and his hands softened against her skin.
She tried to draw herself up, but her voice and the crushing weight in her stomach didn’t help. “It’s all right.”
“No—it’s not. Damn it, Sarah—” He pulled her forward and kissed her, his hand somehow finding the skin at her back again, sending her pulse racing.
Jack broke free a second time, and her head spun. She knew he was going to tell her she had to leave, that his issues were too much, that this couldn’t continue.
“Sarah.” He whispered her name against her lips.
She shut her eyes and sighed. Her mother was right. This road only led to pain.
He stroked her hair again. “Will you come upstairs and stay awhile?”
Her eyes shot wide. She choked on the change in extremes.
“Just for a while,” he said, and for the first time she heard him sound uncertain, like he worried she’d refuse. His eyes held hers. “Just to talk.”
She wondered if he could feel her trembling. “Yes. I will.”
Relief bloomed in his eyes. He leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers once more, his hand tight against her back. When he raised his head, she felt him smile against her lips. “All right, maybe a little more than talk.”

~~~

Friday Favorite: The first flash of chemistry

You know my favorite part in a romance? When the characters first start to realize there might be something there.

Especially if they started the book hating each other, like Jack and Sarah.

~

It wasn’t until she was standing on the sidewalk in front of her building that Sarah realized just how dark and quiet the city was at night. At nearly two in the morning, her office building and the nearby storefronts were all dark. Streetlamps provided equally spaced pools of light and some cars cruised down Light Street, but she was very alone.
She started for the crosswalk and hugged her arms to her body, thinking of all the crazy people who could be hiding in these shadows. She didn’t notice the car that had slowed down alongside her until a voice called out. “Excuse me, Miss?”
She actually stopped and looked around, like he could be talking to anyone else. “Yes?”
He was a young man, maybe her age, leaning out of a sleek black car with tinted windows. “Do you know how to get to Fells Point?”
“Yeah, I think.” She took a step toward his car, stumbling a little. She caught herself with a hand on the window frame.
Something in his gaze sharpened, and his eyes drifted lower. “Maybe you could show me yourself?”
A lick of fear curled around her chest. Sarah jerked herself upright and back onto the curb, suddenly aware of how little clothing she had on.
“I don’t think so.” She turned and started the other way, toward the harbor. Going to a dark parking garage suddenly seemed like the wrong idea. She turned back toward Pratt Street, knowing there was an all night diner one block up, and she could use the phone there to call another cab to take her all the way home.
The guy was yelling out the passenger side window now. “Come on, baby, don’t be like that. I just want some directions.”
“Sorry, no,” she called, speeding up.
“Stop being such a tease.” Anger laced his words now.
Sarah ran.
One block, she thought. I can make it one block.
Her legs disagreed. She barely made it past three storefronts before her heels caught an edge of sidewalk and sent her sprawling. Her face narrowly missed the edge of one of the benches bolted to the ground. Concrete tore through her dress to scrape her ribs.
The car screeched to a stop, followed by the unmistakable sound of a car door opening.
Then the sound of not one, but two pairs of feet making their way toward her.
She couldn’t fight two men. She knew it, but she grabbed the leg of the bench anyway, trying to pull herself back to her feet to run.
“Yeah, you might want to rethink that,” a man said.
I know that voice. She looked up, and Jack stood there, a baseball bat hanging from his hand. The guy from the car was backing up, his hands raised. His car sat idling by the curb.
“Man, I don’t want any trouble. I was just making sure she didn’t hurt herself.”
“Sure you were. She’s fine.” He hadn’t even looked at her. “Get the hell out of here.”
The young guy took another look at her, threw a glance at the man with a weapon standing to her right, and jumped into his car.
Sarah pried her hands off the bench support and scrambled to right herself, pulling her dress closed. Her cheeks were hot, and she hadn’t even done anything wrong. “Thanks.”
He held out a hand, and his voice was gruff. “You all right?”
No. “Yeah, I think.” She took his hand, keeping her dress held shut with the other.
Then the streetlight hit her face. Jack froze. “What the hell? Are you kidding me?”
She stumbled, feeling she must have broken her heel. “I—thank you for what you did. If I could just use your—” She staggered again and gave a small yip when he caught her by the arm.
“You’re drunk too?” he exclaimed. “Lady, I don’t know why you picked me to be your personal—”
“I didn’t pick you for anything,” she snapped, too loudly. “I was just trying to go to my car—”
“Driving. Now that sounds like a good idea.”
“Shut up! I just wanted my phone.” She jerked her arm away from his, and he let her go. She went flying back to the pavement, sitting down hard.
“Wow.” Jack dragged the word into two syllables. He stared down at her and ran a hand back through his hair. “Jesus Christ, you are a piece of work.”
Sitting there on the pavement, staring up at her “savior,” she wanted to melt into the ground. Instead, her eyes betrayed her and she started to cry. She pressed her fingers to her eyes, feeling grit in the cuts on her hand. “Forget it. Just leave me alone.”
He sighed and held out a hand again. “Come on. You can clean up and use the phone.”
She thought he was going to lead her to the store, which was completely dark, but he led her past it to a set of three concrete steps and a wooden door, sandwiched between two store fronts.
He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, but she balked, drawing back. The fear from the guy in the dark car was still too fresh. “Where are we going?”
“I live above the store,” he said. “Where did you think I was taking you?”
Sarah hesitated, torn.
He shook his head and pushed a key into the lock, not looking at her. “Do what you want. You’re welcome to stay out here and take your chances with the next tool in a Lexus.”
She swallowed. “Okay.”
She followed him up a narrow stairwell of carpeted stairs to another locked door. As he unlocked this one, he said, “I thought you didn’t drink.”
She kept a tight grip on the banister. “I don’t.”
That made him laugh, which made Sarah feel like an idiot.
His apartment was huge, larger than she’d have expected, and comfortably cluttered. His furniture was sparse and simple; an overstuffed sofa with an aged coffee table sat along one wall, as did a decent sized television. A stereo took up the other wall, looking newer and more impressive than the TV. Musical odds and ends were everywhere: sheet music, a guitar in the corner, more musical accoutrements she couldn’t identify.
He pointed. “Go into the bathroom.” He went through the other door into the bedroom.
She padded across his floor, barefoot, leaving her broken shoes by the door. The bathroom was clean, at least, though toothpaste, shaving cream, and other guy products sat scattered on the counter.
She could almost hear her mother’s voice now. Everything in its place, Sarah.
But her mother wasn’t here now. Sarah caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her running makeup and hair askew, and thanked god for that.
She kept a hold of her dress even though the door was closed and turned on the faucet, holding the more damaged palm under the cold water. It was only then she noticed her hands were shaking.
His knock made her jump. She awkwardly dried her hand on a towel before pulling the door open.
Jack was holding out a black tee shirt. “Here. You can put this over your dress.”
She stared at him stupidly, surprised by this unsolicited kindness.
Then he ruined it. “Do you need me to translate or something? Take it.”
She took it, and he turned his back. “Where were you tonight that you ended up looking like this?”
She pushed her arms through the sleeves. The shirt was huge on her, and Jack wasn’t that big a guy. “I was with my friend. Some dance club.”
“Some friend.”
Sarah remembered Kate’s offer to walk her out, and wondered where she’d be now if she’d taken her up on it. The man with the sword and the disappearance on the street suddenly seemed a million miles away. Now, standing warm and safe—sort of—inside Jack’s apartment, she wondered if her crazy brain had made up the whole thing.
Then she glanced down at her hands, seeing the first scrapes she’d gotten when she ran for the club doors. Maybe she’d imagined the vanishing, but she definitely hadn’t imagined the rest.
“Did something else happen?” asked Jack, and a new note entered his voice. He turned back around. “Do I need to call the cops for you or anything?”
For a minute, all she could think of was the guy with the sword. Then she realized he was asking if she’d been assaulted. After seeing her face in the mirror, she could hardly blame him. “No,” she said. “You stopped that guy out front.” Her addled brain sharpened for an instant. “Hey, why were you even out there?”
“I do this every night,” he said. “Sit out front with my baseball bat and thwart would-be rapists.”
Did he constantly have to be a jerk? She frowned.
He sighed. “I was waiting for someone.”
“At two o’clock in the morning?” A bookie? A dealer? Surely not, after the disdain in his voice when he’d called her a junkie.
“Maybe you can save being judgmental for a day you don’t show up on my doorstep looking like a roughed up hooker.”
She flinched and turned away from him, bringing her hands back to the sink. Ending up with the guy in the Lexus would have been worse, but Jack was starting to make her wonder how much worse.
She put her hands under the water, gritting her teeth against the sting, painfully aware that he was watching her.
Jack sighed.
Then he was beside her, his fingers wrapping around her wrists, pulling her hands from under the water. “Sit,” he said, and gestured to the toilet. He pulled a hand towel out from the lower cabinet and laid it against the sink, followed by a tube of Neosporin and some hydrogen peroxide.
He turned the water on warm. “Give me your hands.”
She did, feeling more like a little girl than she ever had around him. She expected him to be rough, but his long fingers were gentle against her skin.
He rubbed his thumb against the worst of the scrapes. “You need to get the dirt out or they’ll get infected.” His gray eyes flicked up to meet hers.
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Those knees will hurt worse. They’re a mess.”
Sarah could stand the pain. She wasn’t sure she could bear his hands on her legs. “Who were you waiting for?”
“Hmm? Oh, a friend of mine. He works nights.”
“You wait for him with a baseball bat?”
He laughed softly and turned off the water. “No. I keep that just inside the door. Some punks broke into the store a few weeks ago.”
He blotted her hands with the towel and opened the tube of Neosporin. As he was rubbing it onto the scrapes, his hand went still. “What’s your name, anyway?”
Had she really gone this long without telling him that? “Sarah. Sarah Parrish.”
He nodded and smeared some ointment on her other hand. “I’m Jack.”
“I know.” His eyes flicked up to hers again, and she added, “Big sign over the door. I looked you up, remember?”
“Right.” He recapped the tube and gestured to the tub. “Swing your legs in.”
She started to protest. Even clinically, it seemed too intimate. But she couldn’t force the words past her lips. She swung around until her feet were hanging in the bathtub. He reached over her knees and ran the faucet, then sat back on his heels.
Sarah looked down at her newly treated hands, resting on the skirt of her dress. Bruises were already forming on her knees, and now in the bright light of the bathroom she could see just how much damage her shins had taken. She bit her lip. “I guess I really do look like a roughed up hooker.”
“Not really,” said Jack, sounding amused. Then he smiled. “Crack whore, maybe.”
Sarah winced. But this was the first time she’d seen him really smile. It softened his eyes, pulling some of the tightness from her shoulders.
Jack must have had the same thought, because it had the opposite effect on him. He lost the smile and moved forward to check the water temperature, new tension in his movements.
He cupped some water in his hand and let it run down the front of her left leg, letting the drops pull road grit down her skin. He did it again, using more water this time, not touching her.
She sat very still, watching the muscles in his arm work in rhythm. She was trying to make out the words worked through his tattoos when she noticed he was humming, very softly, under his breath.
She’d almost picked out the melody when he stopped and looked up. “Tell me if this hurts too much.”
“It’s fine,” she said, too quickly.
He ran another palm full of water over her leg, but this time he rubbed at the scrapes with his thumb, laying his fingers against her calf.
Sarah swallowed. “What’s that—” Her voice was breaking, and she tried again. “What’s that song?”
He didn’t look up, but did the same thing to her other leg, his hand strong and warm against her skin. Sarah had to remind herself to breathe.
“Pachelbel’s Canon,” he said.
“You like classical music?” It didn’t fit him, the slow familiar melody clashing with his rough kept hair and tattoos.
He shrugged and reached around her for the bottle of peroxide. “I like throwing different sounds together to see what comes out.”
“You make classical sound like rock.”
He shook his head and smiled slightly. “Not really.”
She fell silent again, watching his hands for a moment, wondering if the peroxide was going to burn, or if the fact that he’d brought it around meant he was almost done touching her. “So what are you doing with the Canon piece?”
Her voice had come out scratchy again, and he glanced up. She hoped he attributed that to the alcohol. “Drums,” he said. “I always start with drums.”
She searched for the silver glints in his eyes. “I’d like to hear that.”
His hands went still. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word as if he weren’t sure what was going to come next. “Come by the store sometime.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice soft.
He stared up at her, his face two feet away, his breathing shallow.
Then he reached around her to turn off the faucet. He grabbed the bottle of peroxide and rose to his feet, holding it out in front of her face. “Can you do the rest?”
His sudden shift startled her. “Yeah—yes. I can.”
“Good. I’ll call you a cab.”
~

Friday Favorite: Invisible Swordsman

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and after pulling my query letters out of the dusty depths of my computer, I couldn’t stop thinking about my invisible swordsman. It’s funny how you forget about characters after you’ve locked them away for a while. Finding this scene put me right back in the moment, and reminded me that once upon a time, I spent a year hanging out with these people.

I might have to rewrite this one, someday.

~

After guilt trapped her in the house with her mother all weekend, Sarah was grateful to climb in a cab Sunday evening to head downtown to fetch her car. As she climbed the stairwell of her parking garage, the remnants of daylight crept through the Plexiglas windows, leaving the steps dim and silent. She clutched her bag more tightly and surged around the bend in the stairs, ready to get in the car and go.
The man with the sword stood at the top of the steps.
She gave a short scream and stumbled on the stairs, staggering to a halt.
He stood absolutely still, staring down at her from ten feet away.
She shut her eyes, hearing her breathing, ragged and uneven. “You’re not real,” she whispered. “You’re a figment of my imagination. I don’t really see you. You will be gone when I open my—”
Steel, cold and hard, touched her neck. Sarah gasped. Her eyes snapped open.
He was right there in front of her, less than two feet away. The sword was in his hand now, the edge resting against her skin.
Okay, that feels real.
This close, she could see he was…different. His hair was dark, almost black, and the consistency was different from human hair somehow, with a flatness that didn’t shine in the fading light. His skin was fair, especially against the black of his clothing. She could see now that the sword was not the only weapon he carried. A long dagger sat sheathed on his hip, along with a shorter sword, and a knife or two were tucked into his belt. But what she couldn’t look away from were his eyes. The irises were colorless but almost multifaceted, like his eyes had been inlaid with diamonds.
Sarah swallowed, but she couldn’t talk, not with the way that blade sat on her neck.
“I’ve been ordered not to speak to you,” he said, and his voice was ethereal, somehow almost crystalline like his eyes.
“How about killing me?” she whispered, threads of panic lacing her voice. “Have you been ordered not to do that?”
“No. Who has sent you?”
She almost said her mother. “I’m just—” She squeaked as the blade moved slightly on her skin. “I’m just getting my car.”
“Who sent you?”
She shook her head, stopping when it pressed the weapon into her skin. Her mouth was dry. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I feel truth in your words.” He moved his head slightly and sighed. “But you are a risk. Forgive me.”
He lifted the sword, his movement graceful.
Oh, god. Sarah scrunched her eyes shut and moved, knowing she’d never be quick enough.
But steel rang against steel. She gasped and opened her eyes.
A sword was in her hand.
Sarah stared at the juncture of the blades, her breathing shakier now. It was the shorter weapon, the one she’d seen strapped to his belt. She’d gotten his weapon and pinned his sword to the wall.
And she could feel the leather wrapped hilt of his weapon now, the balanced weight of steel, the chill of the quillon where it edged against her hand.
The swordsman’s eyes were as wide as hers must have been. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You are a risk.” He pulled his weapon free and swung.
The blades met, and her body deflected again, trapping his sword against the banister this time. She could feel the pull and strain in her shoulders, that her body was doing something it hadn’t practiced for.
“Who sent you?” His voice was sharper now, like broken glass.
“Please don’t kill me,” she breathed. Sweat was slicking her palm, and she adjusted her grip.
His sword slid free.
But laughter echoed from below. Someone was coming up the stairwell.
The swordsman frowned. “Another time.”
“Wait—”
She didn’t even have to blink. He vanished.
But he’d left his sword. Her hand still clutched the hilt, and she traced the edge of the blade with shaking fingers. It bit at her skin, sharp.
Sarah knew she held more than just a weapon. This was something tangible. Something that hadn’t disappeared like a trick of the light.
This was proof.
The swordsman was real.

Friday Favorite: First Kiss

Yeah, this is a repeat, but it’s still one of my favorites, and the first time I posted it, I had like one follower. (Hi, Bobbie! *fist bump*). If you know Chris and Becca, this is from the first novel where they appeared. It’s funny to see them in completely different roles.

“You’re not scary,” Rebecca said quietly.

Christopher laughed softly. “I like that you think that.”

She said it again, a little more firmly this time. “You’re not scary.”

He smiled and pressed both hands to her cheeks. His eyes turned intense, darkening despite the streetlamps. For a moment, she thought he might kiss her.

He did not. “You’re cold.”

She shrugged, feeling her cheeks flare under his palms. “Just a little,” she said. “I’m all right.”

“Hmm. Just a little.” His fingers smoothed the hair back from her face, following the strands down along her neck to make her shiver. His hands slid to her shoulders, where they stopped. He gently pulled her forward, and she knew that all this tension and buildup would find some release. He was going to do it.

He did. He kissed her on the forehead, like an older brother.

The letdown socked her in the gut. She looked down, unable to meet his eyes. How silly. Of course he was only fond of her. Hadn’t he just said he wasn’t interested?

He touched her chin, tilted her face up. She tried to keep the disappointment off her face, knowing it was useless, that he probably knew, and she surely looked like a fool.

Rebecca couldn’t read his expression, but his eyes shone like they were amused. “Well,” he said, and stopped.

“What?” she whispered. She didn’t trust her voice.

Christopher smiled. His voice was soft and intimate. “Now, it will be a surprise.”

With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.

Friday Favorite: Family Drama

This is from a sequel to an unsold novel, but I love these characters so much that they’re going to get their own story one day.

~~

Emily stopped short, waiting in the dimly lit hallway with keys hanging useless in her hand.
Because her apartment door was standing wide open.
The door jamb was intact, and the deadbolt was back, meaning someone had used a key to get in initially. Her neighborhood wasn’t a bad one, but it wasn’t a great one either. She listened for a moment, hearing nothing.
“Max?”
From somewhere inside, she heard a kitchen chair scrape on the tile, and something in her chest loosened.
Then she heard a male voice. Dry, familiar, but not Max. “He’s in his room.”
She froze in the doorway, wishing she could turn around and walk out of the building. But she would never leave Max here. Not with him.
She braced herself and walked into the apartment, quietly pushing the door closed behind her.
Her ex-husband was sitting at her kitchen table. He was almost ten years older than she was, but he still looked as good at forty as he had at thirty. Dark blond hair kept short, the faint trace of stubble along a strong chin. Calculating blue eyes—a salesman’s eyes, her mother had said.
Appropriate. He’d sure sold her.
He was a contractor, and his job—and his ego—kept him in shape. When she’d been twenty, with a hyperactive four-year-old to raise, he’d been the man of her dreams.
Now she knew better.
Her mail was open on the table in front of him.
That pissed her off, and it forced words out of her mouth though she knew better. Provoking him was never a good idea.
“What the hell are you doing here, Scott?”
He leaned back in the chair. “I needed to come check on you. Make sure someone was still raising that kid of yours.” His eyes flicked down her form, somehow making her feel far more exposed than she really was. There was nothing immodest about her running sweats, but something about the way his eyes traced her form made her want to duck behind a door.
“I’m fine. You can go.” She wanted to grab her mail, but she didn’t want to move that close to him.
“When’d that little shit put the lock on his door?”
She refused to flinch. “You can go, Scott.”
He was out of the chair with all the compressed force of a tornado. Some billing statements fluttered in his wake. “You better get control of that kid, Em.” He grabbed her arm, his fingertips squeezing into her bicep. “Or I’m going to do it for you. You get me?”
She put steel in her voice, though her insides felt like Jell-O. “Let me go. Right now.”
It was the wrong thing to say. His grip tightened. “You don’t have any idea what he did, do you?”
It took all of her will to hold still. “I know what you’re doing right now. Get your hands off me.”
“Call him out here.”
She stared up into his eyes, knowing any visible weakness—any vulnerability at all—would put her at his mercy. “Get out, Scott. You have no right to be here.”
They stood locked like that for the longest time. Her arm was screaming to be free of his grip, and she could feel her heart in her chest, working double time from the adrenaline. But she wouldn’t look away, and she wouldn’t grovel at his feet, begging for leniency.
“I own this apartment,” he said, his voice low and lethal. “I have every right to be here. Call him out. He wants to pull this crap, he can stand here and take what’s coming to him.”
She had to take a long, slow breath, knowing exactly how that would turn out. “Scott—whatever he did, I’ll make him apologize—”
“Apologize!” He shoved her against the refrigerator, as if he could somehow rattle the knowledge into her brain. It hurt. Saliva was pooling under her tongue, but she wouldn’t swallow, wouldn’t give him any satisfaction.
“I don’t want a goddamned apology.” His voice had gotten softer, carrying a hidden edge. “Those are my work trucks, Em. If I catch him at this again, no lock on his door is going to stop me. Hear me?”
“Yes, Scott. I hear you.” The words were out before she could stop them, a submissive whisper borne of practice.
She hated that part of herself—hated that Scott could still find it and push the right buttons.
Then his fingers were loosening, his hand smoothing up and down the muscle of her arm. A familiar touch, falsely soothing as his thumb stroked over her shoulder. “I don’t like you being out here all by yourself. You can’t control him.”
She almost nodded, feeling herself lean into his touch.
It was terrifyingly easy to fall back into this role, to let him dictate terms.
Emily slid away from him. All the ground she’d gained was lost now. “Whatever damage he did, I’ll make him pay for it.”
She lifted a hand to push stray hair back from her face, and she felt a pull in the arm he’d grabbed, like a reminder of the danger: This man is bad for you.
She spurred her eyes to lift to his, washing any feeling out of her expression. “Go home, Scott. You don’t live here.”
He saw the change. She watched it register in his eyes. “You tell him, Emily.”
She nodded and held her breath as he walked down the hallway, closing her door softly behind him.
Don’t lose it.
She wanted to get Max, but he couldn’t see her yet. Not like this. Those days were gone.
Her hands were trembling, and she pulled a pot out of the cabinet above the sink. She started water to boil on the stove. Pulled a box of spiral pasta out of the pantry. Started browning ground beef in a pan.
Paper slid against paper behind her, and she spun, almost sending the hot skillet flying. Her back braced against the counter ledge.
But it was Max, picking up the bills and mail scattered on the floor.
“Hey,” she said softly, looking down at him.
Are you okay, Max?
What did you do to Scott, Max?
Why, Max? Why give him a reason to come here?
His movements were tight, forced. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Hey.”
But he was out here in her presence. She started with a safe topic. “You hungry?”
Max nodded, a quick jerk of his head as he stacked the bills on the corner of the table. Then, without being asked, he pulled plates and glasses from the cabinet, even going so far as to pour her a glass of iced tea from the pitcher in the refrigerator.
He was feeling guilty.
She stirred pasta sauce into the ground beef, keeping her voice mild. “Did you let him in, Max?”
He was quiet for so long that she wondered if he was going to answer. “I forgot to lock up. When I got home.” Then, without waiting for a response, he added, “Jesus, Mom! Not so much sauce!”
Emily flashed a glare over her shoulder, wanting to snap, because Max was a safe target. But she froze. For an instant, she saw a little boy sitting there, a crayon clutched in his fist, trembling because he’d colored off the paper and onto the table.
She’d yelled then because her wrath was a hell of a lot safer than Scott’s.
He must have read it in her eyes, because he flushed and seemed to pull back into himself.
She turned back to the stove and lowered the heat on the sauce. “What did you do, Max?”
“Nothing.” She could hear the scowl in his voice.
“He wouldn’t come here for nothing.”
He muttered something under his breath.
She half turned. “What did you say?”
“Forget it.” The chair scraped on the linoleum.
“Max. Wait.” She killed the heat on the stove and blocked him from leaving the kitchen.
When had he gotten taller?
He stopped there, meeting her eyes from an inch higher than she remembered. He was growing into a man, exploring uncharted territory without a guide. She’d read in a book once that teenage boys who never found an outlet for anger, who never had a man to show them constructive ways to balance rage and temperance, would find control with their finger on the trigger of a gun.
The thought terrified her more and more every day. What kind of example had she set? What kind of example had Scott set?
What had Max done?
“Wait,” she said again. “Eat some dinner.”
To her surprise, he did, sitting at the table and stabbing pasta with his fork. His eyes remained on his food throughout the meal, but he was sitting there with her.
“Did you do something to Scott’s trucks, Max?”
His fork froze on his plate. His voice was very small. “It wasn’t just me.”
“Who else?”
He shoved the plate away, eyes fresh with rage now. “Why? So you can get them all in trouble?” She thought he meant with the school, but he continued, “What’s he going to do, beat the crap out of us all?”
She put a hand on his arm, feeling the tension in his muscles. “He’s not going to hurt you or your friends, Max. I won’t let him—”
“Whatever.” He jerked his arm away and bolted from the table, all but shoving her out of his way.
She tried to follow, but then he was through his door.
And the lock was thrown.

Friday Favorite: Fatherless sons

This piece is from somewhere in the middle of a sequel to an unpublished novel, but Max was the first teenager I attempted to write. He carries a lot of angst, a fifteen year old kid who grew up watching his stepfather beat the crap out of his mom. When the novel opens, his mom has been divorced for a while, and now she’s dating Gus.

Max isn’t too happy about that. Maybe his attitude would change if he knew Gus was the son of Hermes, the Greek god of orators and wit, literature, athletics, and lots of other things…

~~

Gus stopped outside Max’s door. He wanted to tear it down, drag the kid out by force, and use every ounce of his power to pull an apology from his lips.
But he sighed and lifted a hand to knock. “Max? I’d ask you to speak with me.”
No answer.
“Surely we can come to some sort of understanding.”
Max snorted.
Gus stood there for a moment. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who would strike his mother would hide behind a locked door.”
“Screw you.”
At least he was talking. Gus stepped closer. “Open the door, Max.”
“Jesus. Go away.”
“If you think a lock will keep me out, you are sadly mistaken.”
“Break it down then. See how much mom likes you then.” But this time there was just a hint of fear behind the arrogance.
Gus smiled. “I don’t need to break anything.”
“What are you, a frigging locksmith? Good luck, asshole.”
Not even a challenge. Less than twenty seconds later, Gus threw the lock and opened the door.
He found Max sitting on an unmade bed, staring with wide eyes and flared nostrils. A black vinyl backpack and a notebook sat beside him on the rumpled quilt. “How the hell did you do that?”
“It’s a talent.” Gus hooked his thumbs in his pockets and surveyed the cramped room.
A small desk hid in the corner, with stacks of worn spiral notebooks spilling across the top. The wood of the desk was old and weathered, and Max had clearly taken liberties in doodling and scrawling phrases along just about every available surface. Old soda bottles and food wrappers were spilling out of the trash can to the side of the desk. Max didn’t have a television in his room, but there was a small stereo on the floor next to the bed, serving as a table for a lamp and a small stack of paperbacks. Homemade bookshelves of wood and cinderblocks were stacked almost to the ceiling of the opposite wall, a frightening construction that barely looked stable. A guitar in a case stood in the corner by the window, next to a pile of CDs and more notebooks. What Gus could see of the carpet was crying out for a vacuum. The rest of it was cluttered with textbooks, magazines, and some sheet music.
“Clearly you live in splendor,” said Gus.
Max hadn’t moved, but his eyes narrowed. “If you don’t like it, get the hell out of here. I don’t break into your house and whine about the décor.”
“Lucky for you.”
“What are you doing here?” But then Max’s lips found that smirk again. “Wait—did Mom make you come back here to apologize—”
“Hardly.” Gus stepped into the room and looked at the makeshift bookcase, partly out of curiosity and partly because he knew it would infuriate Max. “Did you read all these books?”
“No, they’re just holding up the sheetrock.”
“Hmm. As I thought.”
The mattress springs protested as Max lurched to his feet. “Look, dickhead, this is my room. You can’t come in here and insult me—”
“You’re the one so keen on name-calling.” Gus moved away from him and lifted the cover of a notebook on the corner of the desk.
Max slapped the cover down and shoved it out of reach. “Keep your hands off my stuff! Don’t you have any respect for other—”
“Oh, you speak of respect?” Gus raised his eyebrows. “Now there’s a bit of irony.”
“Shut up.” Max stepped closer. “You’re just back here to impress my mom—”
“No. I came back here to warn you.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Gee. A warning. I am scared.”
He was. Despite the bravado, Gus could see it. “If you lay a hand on your mother again, you and I will have a conversation. One you will not enjoy.”
Max mock gasped. “Not a conversation.”
“Hide behind sarcasm if you must.” Gus gave him a level stare. “I know you understand me.”
Max glared right back at him. “You don’t know anything.”
“Do not test me, Max.”
The quiet words seemed to have the opposite effect—a challenge instead of a warning. Max drew himself up, his shoulders tightening, his hands lifting as if readying for a strike. He was a brave kid—Gus had to give him that.
But he held Max’s eye, calling his bluff. Whatever the boy saw there must have been enough. Max scowled and stepped back, dropping onto the corner of the bed. “Whatever.”
Gus looked down, shifting the displaced notebook back to where it originally sat. “I will not—”
Then he stopped short, leaning closer to the desk, reading the words dug into the wood with a pen.
I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, and torture it endures—
“Nietzsche quotes?” said Gus. “Did you write these here?”
“You gonna bitch at me about the furniture now?”
“No.” Gus moved another notebook to read the rest of the line, though he knew it.
and knows how to turn to its advantage.
“Which one is it?” said Max. His voice was still sullen, but there was a thread of interest there, mixed with wariness. These words mattered to him—and he wasn’t entirely sure about Gus looking at them. “Is that—is it the one about torture?”
“The line has nothing to do with torture,” said Gus. “Not really.”
“Then what’s it about?”
Gus glanced up. “Survival.”
“I don’t like that one as much.” Max stood and came over to the desk. For the first time, he wasn’t being belligerent, and Gus wondered how long he’d be able to maintain this flimsy truce.
Max shoved the notebooks into a sloppy pile and dropped them on the floor. “Here—the one about hope is my favorite of the Nietzsche ones.”
These words were scrawled in German. Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.
Max leaned in a bit. “It says—”
“I can read it.”
Max looked a bit surprised, but shrugged. “He was kinda pessimistic, but I get it.”
“Me too.” Gus hesitated. He didn’t want to find anything about this child intriguing. “Sprichst Du Deutsche, Max?” You speak German?
Max shook his head, making his hair fall into his eyes. “Not really anymore. I mostly just read it.”
He seemed uncomfortable by the sudden scrutiny, so Gus dropped his head and followed other lines across the wood. Some were song lyrics, some were nonsense. Some, like the Nietzsche quotes, were surprising in their depth. After his demonstration in the kitchen, Gus hadn’t expected this kid to comprehend a compound sentence.
But so what if he did? Would that make the transgressions against his mother any less offensive?
Max was fidgeting, shuffling his feet against the carpet. Gus lifted his head. “Ask your question, Max.”
His eyes flared a little and he took a step back. “I, uh—well—it’s nothing. Forget it.”
Gus straightened fully. “You’ve already struck me in the head and called me an asshole to my face. Surely a question isn’t so intimidating.”
Max’s eyes hardened for an instant, but then he looked away. “Just—how’d you do the lock?”
Gus put a spark of power into his voice. “Magic.”
For the barest instant, there was a flicker of belief in Max’s eyes. So much for the pessimistic quote about hope.
But then Max scowled. “Shut up. Come on.”
“I picked the lock. How do you think?”
“Really?”
“Never doubt my words over such trivial things.”
“Was that, like—a yes, or—”
Gus sighed. “Yes, Max. Really.”
Max swallowed, and Gus could feel the teenager reassessing him.
“So…are you a thief?” There was something akin to hushed awe in Max’s voice. “Are those prison tats or something?”
Gus put a hand to his neck without thinking. He was so used to his markings that it still surprised him when people did not understand their significance. Here this child thought he was a common criminal. It reminded him that he had no business here, that he had duties outside this small apartment, away from these people.
“No, Max.” He sighed heavily. “I’m not a thief. And these are not prison tats.”
“Oh.”
“You’re disappointed?”
“Naw…I just thought maybe Mom had gone off the deep end finally.” He hesitated, fidgeting again.
“Ask, Max.”
“Well—would you show me? How you did the door?”
There was interest in his voice—too much. Enough to bargain? Gus looked down at him, deliberating. “Yes, but only—”
“No way, really?”
“—if you apologize to your mother.”
Max scowled and folded his arms, his brief good nature gone. “I knew it. This was some stupid trick—”
“You asked me.” Gus wouldn’t pander to this child. He took a step towards the hallway.
“Whatever.”
Then Gus stopped just outside the door and turned. “My offer has no time limit…should you change your mind.”
Max wasn’t looking at him. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever, Gus.”
Then he reached out and slammed the door shut.
But he didn’t turn the lock.

~

Friday Favorite: Jack

Even if this book never sees the light of day, I just love Jack.

~~

Jack put his sticks in one hand and stepped out and away from the drum set, and Sarah watched him move toward her. She wanted to make him play a hundred songs while she just sat and listened.

He stopped in front of her and touched her chin. “I’m glad you liked it.”

His hand was warm, and she sighed.

Then he held up the sticks. “Your turn.”

She jerked back and shook her head, sudden nerves breaking his spell. “I can’t—do that—”

“Shh.” He reached down and took her hand, pulling her out of the chair. “Come on, you little coward.”

Sarah wanted to balk, but the feel of his hand on hers was compelling, like he was some kind of pied piper with drum sticks. She sat on his stool, the wooden sticks clutched in her sweaty palms, and looked at the array of instruments.

She had to clear her throat twice before she could speak, and even then it was barely more than a strangled whisper. “How do you keep them all straight?”

He pulled a chair over and sat to her right. “You know how you can shut your eyes and touch your nose? You don’t miss and hit your shoulder?” At her nod, he shrugged. “It’s like that. Give me your hand.”

She pulled the sticks in close to her lap. “What if I break something?”

“I’ll kill you.” He scooted closer and picked up her hand, wrapping his fingers around hers.

Her heart rate accelerated immediately.

“Relax,” he said, and he was close enough that his breath brushed her cheek, and she could smell the sweetness of his strawberry milkshake mixing with the scent of his beer. Her face started to drift toward his when she heard bells in her head.

She blinked. Not in her head. He was using her hand to make the stick tap the center of one of the large cymbals on the right, and she realized he’d said something about eighth notes and the number four.

Relax. Was he kidding?

“You do it.” His hand dropped away from hers.

Focus took more effort than it should have, but she found herself wanting to succeed, to impress him like he’d impressed her. She discovered she could tap out an even rhythm on the cymbal without feeling too ridiculous.

Then he said, “Now add your foot.”

His voice was soft, his breath warm against her neck. She almost dropped the stick.

“Relax,” he said again. He touched her knee, his hand lingering for just a moment. “This leg. On every one and every three.”

She swallowed and followed his direction, reveling in the tone of his voice as he softly counted the beat, and distantly realized that she was somehow making it all work.

He shifted his chair so he was still behind her, but now more to her left. She couldn’t imagine him being closer, but he was. She could feel the warmth of his body, achingly close to hers.

“Now your left hand,” he said, picking up her wrist. The ink on his skin made a striking contrast where it ran alongside her pale forearm. “Every two and four.”

He helped, but she got it. The rhythm was strong and clear, and even with his closeness, she felt a bit of elation at her own ability. “I’m playing drums!”

Jack laughed, a little. “See? You don’t need me.” He let go of her left hand, but she was able to hold the beat for a moment.

But his nearness was too intoxicating. Sarah let the sticks come off the drums and pulled them into her lap. She turned to face him, her cheeks warm, feeling giddy and foolish. “Show me something else.”

So he took her face in his hands and brought his lips to hers.

The kiss was insistent, his fingers strong yet gentle against her face, along her neck, in her hair. The sweetness of ice cream lingered on his lips, soft and warm against her own. She wanted to lean into him, to feel the press of his body, but uncertainty held her back.

Then his hand was around her waist, making the decision for her, pulling her against him. She was certain he could feel her heart beating against his chest, especially when his hand slid under the hem of her shirt to find the bare skin of her back. She shivered and gasped against his mouth, and his tongue brushed her lips.

She jerked back, suddenly breathless.

They were on the floor, kneeling, her body still pressed against his. She didn’t remember coming off the stool. Jack’s eyes were very close, alert and piercing silver. His breathing was nearly as rapid as her own.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Don’t apologize.” He used his free hand to smooth her hair back from her face. The hand along the bare skin of her back pulled free, moving to safer territory at her waist. “Sarah.”

The way he said her name made her want to melt against him. Her face felt hot. “I’m not—I don’t—”

“Shh.” He kissed the edge of her jaw, then her neck. Then her lips again, but slower now, less a demand, more a question. She relaxed into his touch, enjoying the warm sweetness of his mouth against hers.

She couldn’t get enough of touching him. She clutched at his arms and made a low sound against his mouth.

He broke free this time, looking almost as panicked as she’d felt a moment ago. His voice was very rough. “I—I shouldn’t do this.”

She felt her chest cave in until it hurt to breathe. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t!” He took her by the arms. “Don’t apologize to me. You don’t know—You just—” He shut his eyes and his hands softened against her skin.

She tried to draw herself up, but her voice and the crushing weight in her stomach didn’t help. “It’s all right.”

“No—it’s not. Damn it, Sarah—” He pulled her forward and kissed her, his hand somehow finding the skin at her back again, sending her pulse racing.

Jack broke free a second time, and her head spun. She knew he was going to tell her she had to leave, that his issues were too much, that this couldn’t continue.

“Sarah.” He whispered her name against her lips.

She shut her eyes and sighed. Her mother was right. This road only led to pain.

He stroked her hair again. “Will you come upstairs and stay awhile?”

Her eyes shot wide. She choked on the change in extremes.

“Just for a while,” he said, and for the first time she heard him sound uncertain, like he worried she’d refuse. His eyes held hers. “Just to talk.”

She wondered if he could feel her trembling. “Yes. I will.”

Relief bloomed in his eyes. He leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers once more, his hand tight against her back. When he raised his head, she felt him smile against her lips. “All right, maybe a little more than talk.”

~

Friday Favorite: Starting Fresh

I’m not one to sit idle. When I was querying, I needed a way to occupy my mind so I wouldn’t obsess over the whole query process. As usual, I started something new. It’s a shelf novel for now, something I tinker with every now and again, but it’s still fun to play with. Finding Isaak’s voice was a huge divergence from the types of characters I usually write. But then, I always love a challenge.

~~

Rain touched Isaak’s face, carrying the same bitter sting as on the other side. He’d expected differences here, and he found them: the garish neon signs even a cloudless night could not diminish, the roar of distant machinery echoing in the alley where he stood, the acrid scent of city life that burned in his nostrils.

But rain was familiar, and familiarity was welcome now.

His fingers clutched the folded paper in his hand, holding the parchment close to his thigh, not wanting to lose one precious word to the dampness in the air. He knew his destination, but he clung to the darkness, keeping his breathing shallow, escaping notice from the people who passed on the main road.

Because hiding was familiar, too.

Isaak pushed wet hair back from his face and chastised himself. He didn’t have to hide here. Wasn’t this why he came? To earn his freedom and find a place for himself?

The mouth of the alley was an ocean of sound. Music poured through the open windows and doorways of what appeared to be an eating establishment, interrupted by raucous laughter from the patrons.

He paused to listen to the bawdy words, the easy banter, and changed his judgment to a drinking establishment. Half a smile touched his lips. Maybe this side was not so different after all. He considered stepping through the doorway, approaching the barkeep. Acting as though he belonged here.

He wondered how it would feel to walk among men and not feel the weight of arrogant scorn. To look at a woman and not hear disdainful laughter. To spend a few hours in the company of others without being struck.

Without needing to strike back.

A break in the music allowed him to catch the sound of fractured breathing in the alley, and Isaak hesitated, his eyes seeking the source.

There, among the machines lining the edge of the tavern. A young man crouched on the damp pavement, shadows tracing his eyes, his hands full of wires and … and something else. Isaak couldn’t tell.

He moved closer, being stealthy out of habit. The man was actually a boy, barely old enough for definition to find his features. His hair was long and unkempt, longer than Isaak’s, and some dark color that shined under the streetlamp. His breathing was rapid, and he kept muttering under his breath, throwing quick glances at the open windows.

The wires he held seemed to be attached to one of the machines. Isaak didn’t know the word for the large metal apparatus, but it had to be for transportation, with a wheel at the front and the back like that. Steel gleamed in the darkness, catching the light like the edge of a blade.

Isaak stepped forward and rested a hand against the sleek metal, unable to help himself.

Foreign words slid into his mind, as clearly as reading them from a paper.

Motorcycle.

Ignition.

Hotwire.

Isaak gasped and jerked his hand back.

The boy stifled a cry and swung around, sitting down hard on the pavement. He stared up at Isaak with eyes wide with panic. “I’m not—I just—”

“You are crossing the wrong wires,” said Isaak, his voice rough. The words felt foreign in his mouth, but he knew they were accurate, the way he knew air needed to fill his lungs or water had to slake his thirst.

He reached out and took the cords the boy had dropped. The instant they were in his fingers, he felt the power behind them, the way they wanted to make a connection. How could the boy not feel this? How could he not know which wire desired the touch of another?

The boy was staring at him, but now his expression had morphed into a kind of startled disbelief. “I—I was?”

Isaak nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the machinery before him. “Do you not feel the—”

“What the fuck.” The new voice was loud, carrying over the music from the bar. A hint of a slur flavored the words.

Isaak jerked his head up. A large man was on the sidewalk, a bottle in his hand. Sweat glinted on his forehead and the corded muscle of his arms.

A woman stood next to him, wearing too little clothing against the chill in the air. Her voice was almost a shriek. “They’re stealing your bike, Mick! They’re stealing your—”

“I know what they’re doing, goddamn it.” The man smashed his bottle against brick wall of the bar and started forward. “Go tell Andy there are two bodies in the alley.”

Isaak recoiled, seeing the light of promised violence in Mick’s eyes. Then he thought of the boy. “Please. Do not hurt the child—”

But the kid gave the motorcycle a fierce shove, sending it crashing into the bike beside it. Metal ground against steel in a horrific sound as the boy bolted into the darkness.

A thief. Isaak sighed. He’d been helping a thief.

The man drew close, and Isaak’s instinct to fight was almost undeniable. But he swallowed his fear and his fury and held up his hands. He would not waste this opportunity. Here, he could fit in. Here, he could find equals.

“Forgive me,” he said. “My intent was not—”

A fist cracked into his jaw.

Ah, yes, thought Isaak.

This, too, was familiar.

~

Friday Favorite: Courtship

I’m always fascinated by human interaction, especially the whole mating ritual. It sounds silly to call it that, when there are far more romantic words. Courtship. Romance. Chivalry. But it all really boils down into biology and body language.

Max is Emily’s son. Scott is her abusive ex-husband. Gus is a Greek God, and his power is through language and words.

~~

Emily drove her feet into the pavement, whispering the lyrics to the Bon Jovi song pounding from her headphones. She usually went with French, but the tongue-in-cheek chorus of Have a Nice Day always seemed to work better in German.

Or maybe it was just her mood.

When she was a kid, her father taught her all kinds of ways to keep her mind distracted when she was anxious. Reciting the alphabet backwards. Creating sentences that were anagrams. Counting to one hundred, using a different language for each number. Doing that backwards.

After years with Scott, she could rattle off most of them without thinking about it. The tricks stopped working their magic. Now all she had left were song lyrics.

Don’t think about Scott.

Don’t think about Max.

Run.

She pushed for more speed, until her calves started to burn and she could only sing along in her mind. She turned east on Pratt, heading uphill. She leaned into her stride, trying to maintain this speed.

It hurt. The pain felt good.

Think about something else.

The last time she’d run this route, she’d met Gus.

Typical, that some guy would actually be nice to her, and she’d bite his head off. Not that she would apologize—he had to be after something. Guys like him didn’t talk to women like her without being after something easy.

But it had been nice, to have someone speak kindly for a few minutes.

God, she’d been such a bitch.

Was this what Scott had done to her?

Don’t think about him!

She regretted driving Gus away so quickly. If she’d been nice for two seconds, what would have been the harm in that?

You’d get what you deserve: another guy just like Scott.

Scott taught Max to hit.

You taught Max it was okay.

Emily couldn’t breathe. She skidded to a stop and yanked the headphones from her ears. Breath squeezed into her lungs, the cool early evening air choking her. She bent to put her hands on her knees.

An empty bench sat half a block up, diagonally across the street from the music store and the coffee shop where she’d rebuffed Gus. She straightened and made her way towards it, dropping onto the cold wooden planks.

She coiled her headphones in her lap, then put her forehead in her hands.

How could she fix this?

How could she explain how wrong it was, when Max saw it all the time?

All those years, she thought she was protecting him. Instead, she’d been setting him up for something worse.

A shadow fell across the sidewalk in front of her, then a weight dropped onto the bench.

Emily snapped her head up, ready for it to be someone waiting for a bus, or worse, someone waiting to hassle her. She was downtown, after all, and a lone woman was a target.

When she saw Gus sitting next to her, she almost fell off the bench. It left her dumbfounded for a moment. “You’re—I was just thinking about—”

Don’t you dare say that.

But what else could she say? She broke off and stared at him.

He was wearing a red tee shirt this time, with dark jeans and that pea coat he’d worn in the café. An eyebrow raised, like she was the one who’d appeared right out of his thoughts. “Hello, Emily.”

She shifted on the bench to face him, automatically sliding to the end to give herself more distance. “What are you doing here?”

He nodded across the street in the general direction of the coffee shop. “I have a business matter to resolve.” His eyes returned to hers. “You were just thinking…?”

“I was just—” She’d repeated his prompt automatically, and she cut herself off. A flush hit her cheeks, and she hoped he’d attribute that to her running. “I wasn’t thinking. Forget it.”

He turned to look at her, a spark of intrigue in his eyes. “People lie to me for many reasons, Emily Brenner.” His tone was easy, but he didn’t smile. “Somehow I don’t think this is a good one.”

This time a bit of anger fueled her blush. She had to look away. “I was just thinking about you,” she said, her voice flat. “And here you are.”

“Hmm. Sometimes fate gives us what we want.”

Could he really be this presumptuous? She snapped her eyes back to his. “Who said I wanted to see you?”

“Who said I was talking about you?”

Emily felt her heart kick. Her breath caught, just for a second.

Do not—do NOT—let this man into your life.

She was probably wrong, anyway. He hadn’t said it flirtatiously. His voice was just as flat and challenging as hers had been.

He was still looking at her. “What are you running from?”

“I’m not running from anyone.” Wind snapped up the road, stinging her sweaty arms. She shouldn’t have stopped so quickly. “I was just running.”

He glanced down at the five feet of bench between them, then back at her face. If she sat any closer to the arm rest, she’d be straddling it.

She didn’t have a good answer for that, so she pushed to her feet and started walking. “I have to get home,” she called over her shoulder, not looking at him. “It’s too cold to sit.”

“As you say.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him stand, so she wasn’t surprised at all when he fell into step beside her.

But she was floored when he dropped his coat over her shoulders.

It was warm from his body, and smelled nice, like cinnamon and gingerbread and evergreen. She almost stopped short, unsure how to react. It was such a nice gesture—so gentlemanly. When was the last time someone had given her his jacket?

Never.

It loosened something in her chest, some tightness she’d never acknowledged.

Then, before she could enjoy it too much, she chastised herself. God, stop being such a frigging teenager.

Her lips formed a scowl. “It’ll get all sweaty.”

“Are you warm enough?”

She hesitated, like it could be a trick question. “Yes?”

“Then I don’t mind.”

His hands hung loose at his sides, and he wasn’t looking at her, just walking beside her. She was keeping a good distance between them, and he left it there. Her shoulders felt tense, and she bit at the edge of her lip, waiting for some other shoe to drop.

But his company wasn’t demanding. If she was being honest with herself, it was actually…calming. They covered a block without speaking, and her body began to betray her. Her shoulders loosened and she drifted closer, feeling awkward that he’d been so nice and she was acting like a complete and total psycho.

Emily sighed and glanced up at him. It was a mistake: he was far too good looking, even with the tattoos she could see crawling from the neck of his shirt now, and it reminded her that under all this charm hid a player. Had to be.

She jerked her eyes front and tried to force her brain to be practical. “So you just happened to be waiting around while I was running.”

“As I said, I have obligations here.”

“I’m supposed to just chalk this up to coincidence?”

“If you like.” He looked at her sideways. “Do you mean to accuse me of something?”

She didn’t get the creep vibe from him, but life rarely handed her good presents. Only cruel ones wrapped up in shiny paper. “You’re not following me around, are you?”

“Hmm, now that seems awfully involved for someone as superficial as I am.” He tilted his head back and shrugged. “According to you, I could find women in many places. I suppose I should feel lucky I don’t trip over them in the streets—”

“Don’t be a jerk.” But her cheeks were hot again.

He was silent for a moment. “I did not seek you out, Emily.”

Emily. She wanted to close her eyes and roll around in the way he said her name. It made her forget the other people on the street, the way the cold wind stuck damp hair to her neck. She longed to feel his breath on her skin when he said it.

Pathetic.

She gulped a breath of cold air.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said.

His voice was so tempting, she almost asked if she could sit in his lap to hear it. She squashed that emotion and raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you kidding?”

He looked startled. “No.”

“You want to tell me a story.”

That intrigued look was back in his eye. “Now I rather doubt you’re ready to hear it.”

“You rather doubt…” She whirled on him, an idea coming together in her mind. It seemed to make his niceness, his politeness all come together in an easy package. “Wait a minute. Is this a Jesus story?”

“A…what?” They’d stopped between street lamps, and the falling darkness turned his eyes a dark gold.

Focus.

“Are you one of those guys who goes around trying to read people stories out of the bible?” She felt her ire rising, and she was very aware she was about to make a spectacle of herself in the middle of the sidewalk. “Because, I have to tell you, it’s been a long week, and pretending to be interested in me—”

“Emily.”

She took a breath and caught that scent of cinnamon again. “What?”

“My intent was not to tell a Jesus story.” He sounded vaguely irritated and amused at the same time. “And I have no need to read you anything.”

Her breathing felt too quick. She found herself moving closer to him.

She spun and started walking again. “Fine. Whatever. Tell your story.”

“Hmm. I am honored to have an audience so awestruck by the promise of my words. I hope my—”

“Look, buddy, most guys are like, ‘Hey, baby, lemme buy you dinner.’ I’m not sure I’ve ever been offered something as enticing as circle time at the public library.”

“After my attempt to buy you coffee, I fear your reaction to something as intricate as a full meal. Would you fight me for the right to pay? Wrestle the wait staff to the ground?”

It made her smile.

She tried to fight it, but one escaped anyway. She turned and looked up at him through her lashes.

Then she stopped short, seeing the building behind him.

“I’m home.” She was too late to keep the disappointment from her voice.

“Are you?”

She looked back at him, and he was close.

This is a mistake.

“Go ahead,” she said, hearing her voice waver. “You can tell me your story.”

He laughed, softly, under his breath. “I’ll tell you a story when you ask for it.” Somehow he made the words wicked, an intimate promise.

She shivered.

He glanced up at the sky, the way most men would look at a watch. “It is late.”

Go. Go away.

Stay.

Gus looked back at her. “As I said, I have obligations, Emily. But, if it would not offend, I will see you again.”

His eyes held hers. She felt herself shaking her head.

He reached out as if to touch her chin, but his hand floated there for a moment. She thought he might try to kiss her, and her instincts flared. Her stomach clenched, eagerness warring with fear.

But he didn’t touch her, and he didn’t move closer. “Next time,” he said, “there won’t be any coincidence about it.”

Then he was gone, and wind was striking her flushed cheeks.

Her bare arms were grateful for the covering, and she caught another whiff of gingerbread and evergreen. She moved forward to call him back, to tell him he’d left his coat, but the street was a well of darkness, and he was nowhere to be seen.

Friday Favorite: Independence

I have a very eager-to-please personality. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remind my heroines to step up and show some backbone. This scene may never see the light of day in a published novel, but for me, it was the first time I let Sarah step up.

When darkness finally fell, Sarah found Anson on the railing again. He’d picked a new tree tonight, a thicker oak that didn’t splinter so readily. She’d hardly seen him all day, but he stilled his weapons to drop onto the porch when she appeared.

She didn’t even offer him the cup of coffee she carried, just set it on the railing beside him and stepped back. “How’s the throwing?”

He looked somewhat confounded, as if he couldn’t figure her out—and he didn’t like it. “It fares well, my lady.”

She turned and looked out at the yard, leaning on the railing, inhaling the night air. Someone down the street had a fire going. “Bet you can’t hit that sapling in the far—”

Thock. His knife dug into the trunk of the slender tree.

Another followed it, striking two inches above the first.

“—corner,” she finished dumbly. Her eyebrows lifted. “Nice,” she said, not even trying to hide the appreciation in her voice.

Anson said nothing, just leapt off the porch to jog across the lawn and retrieve his blades.

He’d thrown hard; it took him a second to wrench the knives free. She wondered again why Apollo had stuck him here, a clearly skilled warrior relegated to guarding her in the middle of suburbia.

“My lady.”

Her coffee nearly went all over the place. The voice came from behind her, and she whirled. Soren had appeared on the porch.

She was so happy to see him, she almost forgot herself and threw her arms around his neck.

But his expression wasn’t kind or encouraging. This was the Soren she’d first met—all cool obligation and devotion to duty. It was such a stark difference from their late night confidence a few days ago that she actually had to think whether that had been a dream.

She sighed and wrapped both hands around her cup. “Soren?” Then an unfamiliar tightness gripped her chest, some mix of guilt and fear. “Is Jack okay? Did something happen?”

“He is well.” His eyes shifted left as Anson returned to her side, lingering there for one unfriendly moment before returning to her. He held out a folded piece of paper. “I come with a message.”

“From Jack?”

“Yes, my lady.”

She took it. Her thumb slid across the heavy parchment, the satiny smoothness reminiscent of a wedding invitation. Her name was written on one side, and there was an honest-to-god seal on the other, though it was too dark for her to discern the tiny symbols pressed into the wax. She didn’t want to break it.

It all felt very Pride and Prejudice.

Did this have something to do with Keller and Rous? Did it mean Jack was taking her seriously? She stepped closer to the door so she could read, and slipped her fingers under the flap.

She couldn’t read it, and at first she thought she might have to take it inside. It took her a long moment to figure that the problem wasn’t the light; he’d just written the entire note in another language.

No, not the entire note. There, at the bottom, a word in English.

Checkmate.

What a bastard. She was tempted to pick up the phone and call him on it.

Then she realized that was exactly what he expected. For her to admit she needed him, that she wasn’t prepared to deal with him as an equal, that she should let him call the shots about the other side, all the while smiling and nodding and following his lead.

Sarah looked up at Soren and tried to keep any sarcasm out of her voice. “Tell him I’ll reflect on his message and compose a reply in my own time.”

She could think of two words right off.

Soren said nothing, simply gave her a nod and vanished from the porch, leaving her there with Anson.

Frustrated, she straightened her shoulders and held out the note. “Would you mind telling me what this says?”

Her guardian’s eyes flared in surprise. For a beat, he didn’t move, and she remembered she wasn’t supposed to frame things as a request. Considering the way their first few days had gone, she wondered if he was going to be a jerk and refuse, just because he could.

She wondered if Jack had counted on that.

But Anson stepped out of the darkness and took the note from her hand.

She watched his face closely as he read, but his expression didn’t flicker. “He states that in light of your recent interest in politics, your journey to the other side should occur sooner rather than later.”

They were supposed to go in less than a week! “How much sooner?”

“Tomorrow, my lady. Sundown.” He held out the note. “It is mentioned that he would find the original agenda satisfactory, should you prefer to postpone your pursuits.”

Tomorrow. She took the paper from Anson’s hand, staring down at the foreign characters. But Jack was offering her an out. He’d offered a subtle demonstration of just how far over her head she’d be, trying to play princess.

She could back away and let him lead, for now.

Then her eyes went to that last line.

“Can you take a message back?” she asked, finding her voice rough.

“Yes, my lady.”

She slid through the door to fetch a pen from the kitchen counter, then came back onto the deck. She leaned against the door to write. “Take this to Jack.”

And there, just below his word Checkmate, she carefully printed two of her own.

Bring it.