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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

.@GoddessFish presents Fire Above @CHMacLean Giveaway


Fire Above

by C. H. MacLean

I love her so much, I'd risk anything.

She and I don't have names. We're just slaves, after all. But our hearts don't care, and we're lucky, we have a chance at a scrap of happiness in our terrible lives. My father is the Queen's pet.

But when my love discovers the lords' newest atrocity, she lashes out, does the unthinkable, and attacks one of them. Her courage is heroic, but now they have stuffed her in prison, getting ready to slaughter her.

With nothing to lose, I dare to dream of a life far from the lords. I fight for our freedom, and escape to the woods with my love. We can do no less than free all of our people in the effort.

Our flight through the woods is only the start of our journey. The lords’ flaming attacks, their deception, the loss of so many of my people—I don't know if I will survive, or if I even want to. But for my love, I will do almost anything, even battle the fire above.

Excerpt:

My father opened the small door and his eyes lit up for a brief second. He must be alone. We were still in the hall, though, so I said, “I live to serve.”

“I live to serve,” he said, moving aside and ushering me in.

His office always looked the same. Fireballs hovering in the corners cast flickering but bright light around the small room. Baskets of tally sticks lined the room in an order only he understood, stacks of the thin sheets of metal the lords used to hold language on the one table in the room. No chair or decoration. Looking like a storage closet, this room saw most of the information about the empire.

Inside, my father relaxed a hair. He gave me a half-smile and put one hand on my shoulder. “Where were you?” he said in low tones. “They need a runner to go to the far southeast village.”

“The lords wanted to collect a package from oldest brother's house,” I said. “They Called his youngest.”

“Already?” he said, his eyes falling. All three of my grandsons, I heard him think. I thought I had more time. He thought about telling me something else, something serious. Once again I considered telling him I could hear his thoughts, so he might as well just talk to me. Once again, I rejected the idea. My ability was close to magic, and everyone knew only lords could use magic. I loved my father, but didn't know how he would react.


AUTHOR Bio and Links:

To young C. H. MacLean, books were everything: mind-food, friends, and fun. They gave the shy middle child’s life color and energy. Amazingly, not everyone saw them that way. Seeing a laundry hamper full of books approach her, the librarian scolded C. H. for trying to check them all out. “You'll never read that many before they expire!” C. H. was surprised, having shown great restraint only by keeping a list of books to check out next time. Thoroughly abashed, C. H. waited three whole days after finishing that lot before going back for more.

With an internal world more vivid than the real one, C. H. was chastised for reading in the library instead of going to class. “Neurotic, needs medical help,” the teacher diagnosed. C. H.'s father, a psychologist, just laughed when he heard. “She's just upset because those books are more challenging than her class.” C. H. realized making up stories was just as fun as reading, and harder to get caught doing. So for a while, C. H. crafted stories and characters out of wisps and trinkets, with every toy growing an elaborate personality.

But toys were not mature, and stories weren't respectable for a family of doctors. So C. H. grew up and learned to read serious books and study hard, shelving foolish fantasies for serious work. 

Years passed in a black and white blur. Then, unpredictably falling in love all the way to a magical marriage rattled C. H.'s orderly world. A crazy idea slipped in a resulting crack and wouldn't leave. “Write the book you want to read,” it said. “Write? As in, a fantasy novel? But I'm not creative,” C. H. protested. The idea, and C. H.'s spouse, rolled their eyes. 

So one day, C. H. started writing. Just to try it, not that it would go anywhere. Big mistake. Decades of pent-up passion started pouring out, making a mess of an orderly life. It only got worse. Soon, stories popped up everywhere- in dreams, while exercising, or out of spite, in the middle of a work meeting. “But it's not important work,” C. H. pleaded weakly. “They are not food, or friends, or...” But it was too late. C. H. had re-discovered that, like books, life should be fun too. Now, writing is a compulsion, and a calling.

C. H. lives in a Pacific Northwest forest with five pets, two kids, one spouse, and absolutely no dragons or elves, faeries, or demons… that are willing to be named, at least. 



Saturday, March 14, 2015

Where is the social in social networking? #RB4U #MFRWauthor #RomFantasy

Most of us who are online have a presence on Facebook. Somewhere along the way, this site became the most popular in the world, and seems to have most users addicted to it. I admit to using it myself on a daily basis, even if that use is more often now being limited to a few minutes. I also see it warping self-perceptions, influencing views, thoughts, habits, and even the way we relate to each other. It’s a powerful network, and one that is deeply flawed because let’s face it, we are none of us perfect.

I’ve explored other sites recently, Seen, tsū, Path, ‘Ello – all offer interesting alternatives to the mighty Facebook, but none appear to have caught on. Personally, I think Seen has a great setup, and is a nice, secure site. No one’s heard of it, really. MySpace would be popular to this day if it hadn’t been turned into a site solely for musicians. I used to have over 1200 connections there, now it’s about 100… and when I think to go there, it’s bereft of contact. The world wants Facebook, but for too many, it’s just a trolling ground for ways to spread mean-spiritedness or outright malice.

Facebook’s biggest block to being the network is strives to be is, in my opinion only, the structure of reporting without investigation, groups that can be “secret” and therefore anything can be posted and people get locked into this fantasy world so easily. I set my professional page to be visible only to people 21+ years of age, yet supposedly grown men and women have reported posts because they dislike the curve of a male arse, or some other inane reason. Frankly, it’s childish and vindictive after a time–anonymity insures those with nothing better to do will be able to continue trolling for things to complain about, to make them feel like they’re contributing to decency, of course.

It’s not Facebook, is it? It’s the bored, lonely, unhappy, and petty people who get some kind of power rush when they can interfere with people they don’t even know. I’m not naïve enough to think everyone is sweetness and light and fair play, but this site is at its core supposed to be a social networking site. These days, it’s become the playground of pornography, hate, violence mongering, and just plain ugliness so often. Attacking people from the safety of your home because you’ll never have to face the consequences is pretty pathetic. But, it’s a way of life for some people who engage on social sites.

I’m an author, I do my share of promoting my work. Maybe too much. I miss the days when logging in to Facebook meant I would get to chat with friends, laugh a little, and just relax. Groups, and I have a small one filled with only a couple dozen friends, were great fun because they gave everyone present a feeling of unity and friendship. I admin a few promotional groups with a combined membership of 50,000 people. The garbage that is posted in these groups is truly amazing some days. Why would anyone post a video of themselves naked and masturbating? With an invitation to look at more videos? This wasn’t considered a violation of FBs terms of service, but models and their professional photographers are forever being banned, or threatened with deactivation.

We are all entitled to our personal choices and tastes. BUT, if you want to use a site like Facebook, or any other social network, you agree to follow the rules when you sign up. I don’t particularly agree with all of Facebook’s terms of service, but I do my best to abide by those rules. I took a step back many months ago and re-evaluated my personal stance on a lot of things related to social media. I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t much social about any of these networks. Psychologically and emotionally, there is a great deal of negative and harmful content pushed on us daily.

It makes me long for a simpler time, when people took the time to look at each other, to listen, and to care what was being said. Everywhere we look, heads are bent over electronic devices, and people are missing the reality in which they exist. We can’t even say live anymore in many cases, because the artificial bubble of the internet has taken control of an entire generation and taught them to be selfish, indifferent, and cruel because they don’t ever have to face consequences head on.

The global village is vast, but life felt closer and more real twenty-five years ago. I love the immediacy of talking to friends on the other side of the world, it’s true, but it would be lovely if to do that I didn’t have to log in to a site that seems determined to suck the joy and life out of us on a daily basis. And let’s not even get started on the effects of being an author in the digital age, because that’s another cesspool situation with its own brand of horror and nasty to go with it. That said, I think I’ll crawl back into my archaic little cave and read a book–paper, not stored on a device, after all a tree gave it’s life to provide me with this luxury…


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

New Release: Shades of Death - a mainstream paranormal mystery

Shades of Death is a novel many readers find difficult to define. I have to admit, I'm at a loss myself with this one because it encompasses many genres. I wrote it in two distinctive parts, and while it is a short novel, it's one that touches on a number of intriguing themes, Christianity's connection to the vampyre, modern research, paranormal investigations, and a touch of romance, of course. If you haven't already read this one in a previous release, I hope you'll enjoy this newly re-edited version.
Shades of Death returns:

Death has many shades and shapes... Deep within the ageless Carpathian Mountains, an ancient evil wakes. Imprisoned many centuries ago, the creature has waited, patiently, for the one destined to grant her freedom. Arienne Lereaux has studied the preternatural menace called "vampyre" for most of her life. She is an expert in the field. Loosely affiliated with a secretive organization called The Institute of Paranormal Research and Investigation, she turns to them when she unearths what may be the first representation of the vampyre ever to exist.

The enigmatic and attractive Head of the Institute, Adam Raven, has spent a lifetime tracking the clues left by his mother's disappearance in the mountains of Romania nearly twenty years past. When Arienne arrives at the secluded island headquarters of the Institute, he wonders if she holds the key to finding his lost mother. But before too many days pass, the city of Vancouver is rocked by a series of grisly murders. As it races to find the culprit, the Institute faces an evil unlike any it has encountered before...

In the middle of their hunt, another branch of their network is making a scientific breakthrough in genetically heightened telepathy. The team responsible may soon hold a weapon that will have world powers at their door—until their lead scientist vanishes  after leaving Toronto to consult Raven and his people. Ancient myth is suddenly not myth, and evil may take many guises before the Institute can restore the delicate balance that was destroyed the night Arienne stumbled into a remote castle in the mountains half a world away…



Exclusive excerpt from Chapter One:

The Institute of Paranormal Research and Investigation, British Columbia, Canada

        The Nest, Adam Raven’s whimsical moniker for his small island home called Raven’s Eyre, was filled tonight with patrons from many of the charities and educational institutions that regularly received grants from The Institute of Paranormal Research and Investigation. There were also the expected number of curious spectators, casual students of archaeology, and reporters.
        Standing slightly apart from the gathering was Arienne Lereaux, casually at ease and smiling, but shrouded in an almost visible, self-imposed distance. She held a glass of sparkling champagne, sipping it occasionally as she watched the other guests, her expression pleasant but aloof. She was not a woman who sought the limelight, but she never failed to attract a certain amount of attention in any room. At five and a half feet tall, Arienne was not imposing; yet she was striking. Her voluptuous curves drew men to her, and her cool, sometimes scathing wit just as quickly drove many away. Her hair was shining coffee brown, falling to the middle of her back; her eyes a matching darkness, that when she chose, could be fathomless.  
        Her features were a disarming mix of soft feminine gentleness, and unrelenting stubbornness when she was crossed. At thirty-three, she remained detached from people, and oddly untouched by the passions of love. In her innermost heart, where honesty is the only rule, she knew she inflicted that isolation on herself because she’d never met anyone who challenged and cherished her in equal measure. She made it an impossible quest for any man who tried, and, so far, none had proven her wrong.
        Her expression warmed marginally when she met Adam Raven’s polite gaze, and she raised her glass in a wordless toast to him. His smile reflected amusement, and enjoyment.
        Doctor Adam Raven was a man who made her contemplate things she rarely considered. He was intelligent, and an easy match for her swift mind. He was casually arrogant and composed, naturally in control of the responsibility of The Institute. Her woman’s heart also conceded to his charm and his handsome face. Adam was a man that was impossible not to notice–especially when dressed as he was tonight, in the stunning black and white of a tuxedo. Arienne smiled when he scanned the crowd to locate Lorinna Mallory, the most beautiful woman in the room, as far as Arienne could see. Adam smiled again when his colleague nodded in response to his wordless directive.
        The Institute workers discreetly made their way to the far end of the room, and positioned themselves in a loose semi-circle at Adam’s back. The reception room grew hushed, and all attention became focused on the draped pedestal that was so clearly the reason for tonight’s party.
        The Institute headquarters on the small island off the British Columbia coast was a grand, vaguely mysterious place, rarely made accessible to the public, except on occasions such as the one that opened the house tonight. The rich dark shades of gleaming wood dominated the atmosphere; books were a natural part of the decor; antiques of varying ages and places of origin; and a staff of demure, well-trained people ran the house with discreet efficiency.
        Arienne knew that somewhere in its depths, the mansion also housed one of the most advanced laboratories on the planet. That was one of her reasons for coming to the city. A few seconds later, her attention was diverted from the estate and her internal wanderings.
        Lori stepped forward and smiled.
        “Ladies and gentlemen, if we could please have your attention for a few moments?”
        The crowd quieted, and Adam once again glanced at Arienne, who made her way to the front of the assembled group, but had not joined the Institute team. For the first time since they’d met, her smile was radiant, and she nodded.
        “You all know Adam Raven...” Lori continued, and took a step back to her position beside Robin George, a psychologist and M.D., and relatively new to the eclectic team.
Adam halted next to the shrouded pedestal and felt the focus of the entire room settle on him with expectant intensity. The unconscious force of psychic energy battered him for a moment before he imposed the control that kept such sensations from overwhelming him. Composed again, he smiled and addressed the people in front of him.
        “As you are aware, the Institute Museum is home to many valuable and rare artifacts from all over the world.” He waited out the expected spurt of applause. “Tonight we are honored to add to our collection a piece many scholars and researchers believed to be pure myth.”
        With the theatrical flourish of an accomplished magician, Adam lifted the small sheet that had hidden from view a figure of ancient stone. It was hideous in appearance; fanged, skeletal, winged and Vampire-like. Clutched within its talons was a human skull. There was an odd, eerie luminescence lurking within the dead eyes of the figure.
        A quick scan of the room told the Institute members that their guests were wary of looking too closely at the small statue. That unease created its own wash of anxiety among them. Adam once again became the center of attention as he broke the uncomfortable silence.
        “This piece has been dated at well over 30,000 years old. It was discovered in,” he smiled, expression faintly ironic, “perhaps appropriately enough, the Transylvanian Alps. Tonight, we have with us the woman who found the piece, Doctor Arienne Lereaux.”
        He gestured to Arienne, who responded with a tiny bow of acceptance of the polite burst of clapping.
        “Doctor  Lereaux, would you do us the honor of explaining the significance of this piece?”
        Arienne frowned briefly, then her expression smoothed, and she went to stand at Adam’s side. The slinky ripple of her gown as she moved made her overly conscious of herself, and she mentally berated herself for allowing the saleswoman to persuade her to purchase the outrageously priced designer dress–scarlet was not a color that left its wearer unobtrusive, as Arienne generally wished to be.
        “Thank you, Doctor Raven.” She turned to the people who awaited her explanation of the find, and its significance. “We’ve all heard the legends of vampires and many of the myths most commonly found in our culture were born from Bram Stoker’s novel, DRACULA. There are vampire legends from virtually all cultures; they vary in types and abilities, but all have two things in common. They are creatures reputed to have died, and they feed off the living. This,” she touched the figure with reverent fingers, “is one of the oldest representations of the mythical being we call vampyre. The people of the Alps believe to possess this figure is to be enslaved to the vampire spirit entombed within it.” Arienne shrugged, and her features shifted to an expression of wry humor. “I guess that makes me Renfield.”
        The guests laughed weakly, still unreasonably agitated in the presence of the idol. Adam and the other Institute members were also growing apprehensive along with the mood of the room.
        Adam moved to go to Arienne’s side and halted abruptly, his eyes suddenly filled with the flashes of psychic vision plaguing him in recent years. As they often did, the images blurred together, a rapid series of impressions that would not make sense immediately: .....He and Arienne in a passionate embrace... making love... Arienne screaming... blood on Adam’s hands... Then, lastly, Arienne’s eyes... terror-filled... glowing...
        The vision ended as precipitously as it began. Adam, inwardly shaken, completed his interrupted step to Arienne’s side. She was gazing at the crowd, seemingly oblivious to his closeness.
        “The first record we have of this figure in our culture links it to Christianity, though it’s not clear how or why there is a connection,” she said quietly.
        Adam glanced again at the crowd, aware that they were shifting nervously, hardly concerned with what Arienne was saying. He touched her elbow, and when she looked at him, he shook his head.
        “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. As always The Institute is grateful for your support and your continued interest.”
        Adam glanced back to the other members of the Institute team, his request silent, but understood. They broke up and began to mingle with the guests, carefully leading them into the banquet room.
        Discreetly, Adam took Arienne by the arm and led her toward the stairs. They exchanged smiles and comments with various guests as he maneuvered her up the flight, through the library, and into the conference room.
        As soon as they were alone, Arienne left his side and wandered to the window, her thoughts alive with chaotic images that were terrifying... and uncomfortably familiar.
        “You did not mention a religious connection when you brought the statue to us, Arienne,” Adam said. His voice, softly accented by his years spent in English schools, was cool with annoyance.
        She was motionless, and unresponsive. For a moment, Adam wondered if she’d even heard him. When he was about to repeat the question, she turned to meet his angry eyes.
        “Why else would I be interested in it? You know my specialty, Adam. I’ve been trying to connect vampire lore to the Christian myth for years.”
        Adam crossed the room to stand at her side.  “For many of us Christianity is not considered a myth of any kind. It is the basis of our faith and our goals here. The Institute supports your research in terms of knowledge, but not in spirit, Arienne. Not if you consider the core of our strength nothing more than myth,” he admonished with a gentleness that was in direct contrast to the storm that brewed in his deep brown eyes.
        “You misunderstand me, Doctor Raven,” she whispered. She faced him squarely, expression composed but equally angry.  She indicated an ornate plaque, visible beyond the open door as it reigned over the library, and the inscription etched deep into the rich silver, “All sacrifice is made worthy by Truth,” she read aloud, then smiled. “I am merely seeking that truth, Doctor Raven. Something your parents would understand well.”
        Adam remained silent, waiting for her to continue.
        “I have reasons as great as your own for believing in God, and all that He represents. The darkest path needs a light, however ephemeral, and I have often found that beacon from within my faith and trust in a God more wise than we will ever be.” As she spoke, she calmed, the anger and argument forgotten. She relaxed with her subject and spoke more freely.
        “The primary purpose for my quest, as it were, is to discover why there has always been such a great fear of vampirism and why it’s become so heavily linked to the Christian faith. There’s more to it than the modern fascination with lurid fiction.”
        Adam was thoughtful, and leaned on the polished frame of a window, his hands resting on the wide sill.
        “How long have you been studying this?”
        Arienne perched on the edge of the conference table and shrugged delicately.
        “Since before I became associated with The Institute... I ran into one of your people on one of my excursions into the Carpathians, and she persuaded me to take my talents to your Paris Division. I agreed. It’s been very useful,” she added with a laugh.
        Adam smiled. “For us as well.”
        “Adam?”
        Lori interrupted whatever reply Arienne was considering. Adam looked toward her, and saw the hesitation on his friend’s exquisitely beautiful features.
        “We need you downstairs.”
        He paused long enough to cast another look at Arienne, saw her nod and stroll to another of the many windows in the room, then he moved and followed Lori to the main floor.
        Alone, Arienne stared blindly out the window. For the flicker of an instant, the mirrored surface of the glass cast her image back at her, but her eyes flared red fire. She was unaware of the disfiguration, and shivered violently as tears blurred her vision. Hugging herself tightly, she closed her eyes and bit back a sob of anguish.

Testimonials for Shades of Death:

Shades of Death was a great read from beginning to end. Just about the time I thought I knew what was happening, a new twist would come into play. I found myself riveted to my seat each night in front of my computer, reading and waiting to see where I would be taken to next. My only complaint is that this should be a movie and there had better be a sequel. ~~ Penny Adams, avid reader

In Shades of Deaththe characters and the storyline draw you in so much that you forget time, you have to keep flipping the pages until the end.... ~~ Patsy Marshall, Book Club member and avid reader

Denysé Bridger's hauntingly suspenseful story kept me spell-bound from the first chapter right up to the last. It was hard to put down, and impossible to forget! ~~ Lisa Vance, Author




7 Lovely Things Blog Hop for Angelica

Amazon * Kobo
I was tagged on Facebook and a request was made that I reveal 7 lovely things about me. So, let's see if I can think of 7 things??

1. I absolutely adore things associated with the Old West, including Westerns on TV, in movies and books.

2. I'm fascinated by the Ripper murders, despite my aversion to such bloody things, and have been known to write about this series of killings.

3. I am addicted to Popcorn.

4. My first internationally released paperback was based on Greek Mythology and involved a huge amount of research reading that I loved.

5. I get bored easily, so I often jump from genre to genre when I write in order to keep things fresh for me and anyone who reads my books.

6. I am a full time caregiver, looking after my mom at home. A few years ago she fell and broke a hip, and has been frail ever since and needs assistance.

7. I love wolves more than any other animal on the planet and believe them to be among God's most perfect creations. I've adopted two of them at Wolf Haven International.




Saturday, March 07, 2015

On SALE for a limited time - the highly rated, best-selling Western novella Champagne and Chocolate @NaughtyNightsPr @GinaKincade

Currently on SALE for a Limited Time at $0.99, if you have a passion for the Old West and a hero who will make your heart beat just a little faster, it's time to indulge in a little Champagne and Chocolate.

The Reviews are in - and they're GREAT! Check them out: Amazon Reviews - if you'd like to Tweet the news, please do - just click on any of these icons and the Tweet is written for you. (Thank you!)

Tweet: On SALE for a limited time - the highly rated, best-selling Western novella Champagne and Chocolate http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html Tweet: Bridger’s Champagne and Chocolate is more than just erotica...  http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html Tweet: Women looking for romance will find it in this story, and likely find their heart racing along with Chantille's. http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html Tweet: The attention to the details draws you into the story until you feel like you have merged with the characters... http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html Tweet: The story takes the reader on a ride that won't soon be forgotten. http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html Tweet: The setting is authentic, the details adding to the richness of the author's fine storytelling. http://www.fantasypages.ca/2015/03/on-sale-for-limited-time-highly-rated.html



 Trailer:


Available from these sellers:

ARe Romance  •  Smashwords  •  Publisher  •  Barnes & Noble  •  Amazon  •  Kobo Books

From different worlds, drawn by desire, passion is about to change their lives forever...


Indulge in a wickedly seductive taste of CHAMPAGNE AND CHOCOLATE:

Austin Standish is a man of refined tastes. Intelligent and educated, Austin enjoys all of the best life has to offer. A gambler, a gunslinger, and a man who has plans to taste the sweetest prize at The Palace Casino and Saloon - the lovely owner, Chantille L'Amour, the most sought after jewel on the Barbary Coast.

Running a high-class brothel and casino isn't exactly the life she was born to but Chantille is determined to overcome the ruin her family was left in once the Civil War ended. But, she has chosen a difficult path... one that demands much and leaves her lonely. She's noticed the handsome man who comes into her world from time to time, and when she chooses to give in to desire, the passion evoked by Austin's touch may change her life forever...



Excerpt:

“Will you be needin’ anything else, Miss Chantille?”

Chantille L’Amour turned and looked at her maid. Carrie was hovering close to the door, clearly eager to get on with other chores if she wasn’t needed here.

“No, Carrie,” Chantille said with a shake of her head. “I just want a few quiet minutes before business begins for the night.”

Carrie hesitated, her mouth opened to speak, then she shook her head and nodded. A moment later, the door to the suite of rooms closed with a soft thud.

Chantille sighed heavily and walked to the French doors, then leaned against the door frame. The last faint rays of the glowing afternoon were giving way to the steady encroachment of evening as she stared out at the glittering, sun-dappled beauty of San Francisco Bay. For several more moments, she delayed the increasingly wearisome task of preparing herself for the evening ahead. For a few precious moments, she allowed her heart to pine for a simpler world in which to live. The world her parents spoke about with such longing, life as it had been before the Civil War tore everything to pieces. Born in the midst of that conflict, Chantille had never enjoyed the peace and happiness her parents had known in their youth. She’d resented it deeply, and, because of the devastation wrought by the war, she’d made choices that weighed heavily on her. Those dictates had done their part to age her spirit well beyond her twenty-five years.

The scents and sounds of the Barbary Coast wafted up to her, assaulting her senses now where they had once caressed. She’d arrived in San Francisco several years ago, bright-eyed and determined to be the mistress of her fate. She’d been tired of living on the dead dreams that sustained her family, fully aware that the South would never again possess the lazy, luxurious languor that had enabled it to fall to its own complacent arrogance. In San Francisco, Chantille’s money and family meant nothing to the hordes of men who flocked to her place of business. They cared only about the quantity of drink and companionship to be found at The Palace. The quality was another wasted effort on her part, though she steadfastly refused to compromise it.

With a barely audible groan, Chantille pushed herself from her casual slouch and went to her bed. She’d laid out her clothes before bathing, a custom she often found soothing. She slipped the silk dressing gown off her shoulders and reached for the soft, ribbon-trimmed cotton drawers. The ritual of dressing eased her nerves, as it always did, and her spirits lifted as she closed the hooks on her corset and carefully tugged free the hand-woven froth of lace that decorated her chemise. Layers of crinolines and petticoats came next, and, once she’d fastened them, she walked to her dressing table and sat before the mirror. She applied a slight hint of rouge to her high cheekbones, and then repeated the color in darker tones on her lips. She selected earrings, and a sparkling diamond necklace that was worth more than most of her customers would see in their lifetimes. She’d done her hair earlier and turned her head to survey the results of her work. The pale ash blonde of her hair was set off by the inky black, velvet ribbons that she’d taken time to weave into the intricate knot. Strands of fair hair had already escaped the confines of her careful design, but she knew better than to attempt to contain them further—by night’s end, many more curling wisps would be falling around her face, giving her a deceptively angelic appearance that she knew appealed to men.

Her gaze fell to the ivory swells of her breasts, the ample curves made more prominent by the corset she wore. Her waist was naturally tiny, and the tightness of the shaping undergarment made her appear delicate, almost fragile. Another illusion, she thought, as she laughed inwardly. She walked to the bed to retrieve the glowing silk gown she’d selected for the evening. It was pale amethyst in color, trimmed with deep plum lace and ribbon. She settled the heavy dress over her hips, pulled it closed, tight to her body, then tugged the wide straps downward so her shoulders were almost bared. As she bent forward to retrieve a handkerchief from the top drawer of her dressing table, she caught her reflection in the mirror. Her parents would have been horrified to see her like this, her bosom all but falling from her dress, her face painted, and her dark brown eyes filled with knowledge that decent women would run from.

Oddly, the sadness that would once have accompanied the observation was missing now, and she realized she’d grown beyond caring what other people thought of her. There was no profit in opinion, and she’d learned that money was the only real power that mattered. So, she dismissed the whisper of censure from her past. However, the appealing image in the looking glass created an entirely different kind of ache within her. Loneliness, yes, but not the heartbreaking pain she’d known when she’d first arrived in San Francisco. This evening, she was lonely for the very companionship the girls who worked for her sold on a nightly basis. Chantille seldom accepted any of the numerous propositions that came her way in the course of an evening, but, tonight, she decided, she would attempt to be more receptive to the invitations she received.

It had been a very long time since she’d permitted a man’s arms around her. Longer still since she’d enjoyed more intimate pleasures. Smiling, she turned and headed down to the main room of the vast saloon she owned and ran.

* * * * *

Austin Standish alighted from his carriage and glanced at the incongruous, regal splendor of The Palace Saloon and Casino. He paid his driver, then headed into the sprawling building, an old opera house that had been abandoned for a number of years before Chantille L’Amour bought the place and set about reinventing it. He’d come to this particular establishment on numerous occasions since first discovering its existence and had enjoyed most of the pleasures offered. He’d thus far failed to make one conquest, however, and he was honest enough to admit it was that very challenge that kept him coming back. The owner of the saloon was an enigmatic and alluring woman who’d quickly seen through the charm and easy arrogance with which he had enticed so many ladies before her. Despite several invitations, she’d never granted him an audience.

Inside the grand saloon and casino, the décor was a reflection of surprising sophistication and good taste. It was wasted on most of the clientele.

Austin spotted several gentlemen who frequented the place, gentlemen who preferred not to be seen in the company they presently enjoyed. He ignored them and went through to the casino’s private room. He was known to the doorman and was immediately granted entrance. He spotted his quarry the minute he walked in; she was standing near the polished bar, surveying the customers and their talent at the tables.

Somewhere inside him, he felt a familiar flutter of excitement, but he dismissed it as ludicrous. He’d long ago learned the high price one paid for infatuation, and he refused to be swayed by it ever again. He wanted this alluring woman, but nothing more than that. A night in her bed, and he’d be content to never again step inside The Palace.

When the lovely Miss L’Amour glanced his way and held his eyes with her dark gaze, he had to ignore the self-mocking laughter that bubbled up inside his head. He inclined his head in a casual bow of acknowledgment, then went to purchase his usual thousand dollars’ worth of chips. He seldom lost, but his starting sum always remained the same; when he deviated from the practice Lady Luck withdrew her favor more often than not. He entered the casino with a thousand dollars, and usually left with considerably more than he’d had upon his arrival.

The chandeliers set in the high ceiling threw off enough light to rival the early afternoon sun, and the noise level, while something that couldn’t be entirely disregarded, was nowhere near the din that pervaded most saloons on the Coast. Standish was content for the moment to enjoy himself. He’d concentrate on the beautiful saloon owner after he’d indulged his more mercenary tendencies.

* * * * *

Less than two hours later, Standish’s winning streak forced a division of his attention. His last bet at the roulette wheel had earned him in the vicinity of ten thousand dollars. The man in charge of the table was looking more than a little bit worried, and he requested a moment to consult with the owner. Austin smiled and waited for the pretty woman to join them. He watched her for a few moments as she listened to whatever was being whispered in her ear. Once again, his stomach reacted with a disturbing flutter when she glanced at him, her stare bold and refreshingly direct as she considered her course of action. He realized, much to his inner horror, that he’d been holding his breath while he waited; he almost gasped in air when she smiled and began to walk toward him.

“Mr. Standish,” she murmured when she had reached the roulette table. “How lovely to see you again.”

He was surprised by the familiarity, and he arched one eyebrow, the response reflexive. “I wasn’t aware we’d met, Miss L’Amour.”

She laughed softly, and he was further enchanted.

“I don’t believe we have,” she agreed. “Not officially. But I do know who you are, Mr. Standish. Otherwise,” she added with a hint of irony, “you wouldn’t be permitted to gamble in this suite.”

“And am I to be permitted to continue this game, ma’am?”

“How lucky do you feel tonight, Mr. Standish?”

He grinned with an expression he knew was both confident and charming, a device well used over the years. Miss L’Amour’s tinkling amusement whispered in the space between them. Then she nodded and went around the table herself.

“Place your bets, gentlemen,” she said, gesturing at the numbered black and red table surface. She picked up the gleaming white marble and prepared to send the roulette wheel spinning.

When she bent forward, giving him a deliciously full view of her cleavage, Austin placed a reckless bet and sat back to watch the outcome.

“Your luck holds, Mr. Standish,” she said less than a minute later. “It would seem that I now owe you a substantial sum of money.” She walked from behind the table. “I’ll inform the cashier of your good fortune. When you wish to cash in, the money will be in my office.”

With a brief nod of her head, she left the table, smiling despite the loss of revenue. Standish was charmed all over again.

“Sir?”

He turned to look at the man next to the roulette wheel. They were waiting for his next bet. He shook his head.

“Not this time, Marty,” he said with a laugh. “I think I’ll quit while I’m still winning.”

The other man nodded, and, the moment Austin left his chair, he was aware of another man taking his place. He headed for the bar, intent on exchanging more than a few words with Miss L’Amour.

* * * * *

Chantille watched Standish from her vantage point at the end of the bar. He was a handsome man, one she’d noticed on several occasions. As he stood, she took quick inventory of his appearance, chewing her bottom lip unconsciously as she absorbed the man’s almost palpable presence.

At a height of over six feet, Austin Standish was a man not easily overlooked. He had sandy blond hair with a lock that perpetually fell over his forehead. Under the shaggy blond hair, the most startling green eyes Chantille had ever seen missed nothing that came within their scrutiny. His face was a fascinating blend of angles and contours, the individual features not perfect, yet the overall combination completely arresting and pleasing to the appreciative eye. He was slender, yet there was an undeniable sense of strength and power in the long line of his body. Tonight, as on other nights, he’d chosen a suit of black, the inky shade contrasted sharply by the stark white of his shirt. The frills at his cuffs and along the front of the shirt could have lessened the impact of strong masculinity that emanated from him, but, instead, they only added to his imposing aura. His brocade waistcoat was a shade of palest gray, adorned by a gold watch chain that disappeared in a pocket at his left. Silver-trimmed boots finished the polished and cultured image, and Chantille wondered how he’d remained a free man for so long. She didn’t doubt for an instant that the company of women was something he never lacked.

She straightened when he caught her gaze and began to walk in her direction. Deep inside, she began to quiver, and the awareness that he could shake her so intensely with no effort was both disconcerting and annoying. Yet….

“Miss L’Amour.” Austin smiled when he reached her side. “Would you do me the honor of joining me for dinner?”

“Thank you, no,” she replied. “Have you come to collect your winnings, Mr. Standish?”

“If you can’t be persuaded to grant me your company, then I’ll have to settle for your money.”

“You’re far too charming to suffer loneliness,” she countered. She walked away from the bar and led him into her office. She arched one eyebrow in subtle surprise when he closed the door behind them.

“I assure you, Mr. Standish,” she said, her tone cool, “money is all you will be collecting in this office.”

Austin continued into the small room until he was directly in front of her and she had to tilt her head back to hold his gaze. The gleam of amusement in the deep green eyes that bored into her was irritating, and intriguing.

“Are you certain I can’t change your mind about dinner?”

“Not entirely,” she conceded with a smile that wanted to become laughter.

“Ahh,” he whispered. “Hope at last.”

“Hope has a way of disappearing just when you’re learning to count on it, Mr. Standish.”

“But the times it doesn’t are so sweet it makes the disappointments bearable, Miss L’Amour.”

“Right you are, sir,” she agreed with a thoughtful smile. She made a decision then, a reckless choice that she didn’t take time to consider. “Perhaps I could persuade you to dine with me in my suite?”

Austin’s gaze was pensive, and she wondered, with a tiny leap of panic, if she’d miscalculated his interest.

“It’s never a good idea to offer a man paradise if your plan is to shut the gates before he has a chance to come inside, Miss L’Amour.”

It was a veiled warning, but a warning just the same. This man was not one to be toyed with or played for a fool. He was drawing her a little more deeply into his presence, in spite of herself.

“And you think I’m offering you paradise, Mr. Standish?”

“I’m fairly certain of it, yes,” he murmured, voice low and compelling.

She smiled and went past him to the safe that was in her office. She collected his money and brought it to him.

“Your winnings, Mr.—”

“Austin.”

“Austin,” she said.

He took a double-eagle from the pocket of his waistcoat and held it between his index and middle fingers. With a quick grin, he slipped it into the valley between her breasts, caressing silken skin for the briefest instant before drawing his hand back. Something betrayed her reaction and made his smile deepen.

“You take liberties with great ease,” she whispered, her voice husky and exotic.

“Before the night’s over, I plan to take a great many more,” he assured her.

“Perhaps I’ll be the one to take liberties tonight, Mr. Standish.”

“I’d be delighted to put myself in your hands, Miss L’Amour.”

She smiled. “Would you wait here for a few moments? I have to speak to my maid.”



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