Blog Tour Excerpt: Love, Hate and Clickbait

Title: Love, Hate and Clickbait
Author: Liz Bowery
Genre: Romance, Contemporary, LGBTQ
Publisher: Mira
Release Date: April 26, 2022

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Shake some hands. Kiss some coworkers.

Cutthroat political consultant Thom Morgan is thriving, working on the governor of California’s presidential campaign. If only he didn’t have to deal with Clay Parker, the infuriatingly smug data analyst who gets under Thom’s skin like it’s his job. In the midst of one of their heated and very public arguments, a journalist snaps a photo, but the image makes it look like they’re kissing. As if that weren’t already worst-nightmare territory, the photo goes viral–and in a bid to secure the liberal vote, the governor asks them to lean into it. Hard.

Thom knows all about damage control–he practically invented it. Ever the professional, he’ll grin and bear this challenge as he does all others. But as the loyal staffers push the boundaries of “giving the people what they want,” the animosity between them blooms into something deeper and far more dangerous: desire. Soon their fake relationship is hurtling toward something very real, which could derail the campaign and cost them both their jobs…and their hearts.

Excerpt:

When he cared enough to try, Thom Morgan was great with people. For one thing, he was very handsome, which led most people to believe that he was charming. He also had bulletproof bullshitting skills, thanks to a lifetime in politics. And it was especially easy to win people over when they were caught up in emotional crap—like at a wedding.

So it wasn’t a surprise that he was a hit at his girlfriend’s sister’s wedding. Her family was eager to meet the boyfriend that Ashley had told them all about, and not just because of his looks or his charm. Everyone loved politics these days, and every Californian had an opinion of his boss, their governor, Leonora Westwood. Luckily, whenever someone tried to ask him something boring about the true business of governing—What’s she doing about forest management? Don’t you think taxes are too high? There’s a pothole outside my house—he could remind them what he really did for a living.

“Actually, I’m the governor’s top political consultant,” he said, injecting just the right amount of apology into his tone to make the boast go down seamlessly. “So I have less to do with the day-to-day and more—”

“Ahh, I got it, your eye’s on the White House,” said—Thad? Chad? Something bro-y, Thom hadn’t been listening. They were with the rest of the wedding party in a wallpapered bedroom, waiting for the ceremony to begin.

“Oh, no, of course not,” Thom said. “Right now we’re just focused on keeping forty million Californians happy.”

“Right now,” Chad said predictably. “But when the primaries roll around?”

Thom feigned a gaping mouth, as if he didn’t pretend to be caught off guard by this question dozens of times a day. “I mean, by then, who can really say…”

“Sure,” Brad said, looking fucking ecstatic to be in on the world’s biggest open secret: that Leonora Westwood would be running for president next year, which was exactly why she’d hired Thom.

Thom winked at him and took a swig of his beer. Then he glanced at Ashley across the room and sent her a silent plea for help with his eyes. She muffled a laugh behind her hand before quickly crossing the room to them, saying to Thad, “Excuse me—I have to steal him away for a second.”

Out in the elegant hallway of Ashley’s parents’ home, Thom slumped against the wall in relief. “Thank god,” he said, phone already in hand. “Any more small talk with the yokels and I would’ve melted down.”

“Uh, hey,” Ashley said, batting his hand away before he could look at his phone. “Don’t I deserve more thanks than that?”

“You’re right,” he said, grinning and reeling her in with his arms around her waist. “Thank you, thank you…”

He trailed off as he kissed her. After a moment, she made an unhappy noise against his lips. “What?” he asked, pulling back. “Don’t like my technique?”

“I can feel your phone in the small of my back,” she said.

He grinned wider. “Is it a turn-on?”

“Definitely not.” She pulled away. With a sigh and a glance down the hall, she said, “I should go make sure my sister’s ready. It’s almost time.”

“Fine,” he said. “Leave me here alone.”

“Don’t stay on that thing the whole time,” Ashley said as she backed down the hall. “Go mingle! Network. Do your thing.”

“Trust me,” he told her, “the only person here I care about is you.”

A small, happy smile flashed across her face. Then she ducked away, down the hall.

That left Thom alone with his phone, so that he could finally—finally—check on news from the office. Governor Westwood—or Lennie, as her staff called her—had just wrapped up an incredibly successful trip to Singapore, and he was eager to see how it was playing in the news. International trips weren’t exactly standard fare for governors, but given the size of California’s economy, it made sense for Governor Westwood to travel overseas to develop the state’s trade relationships. Of course, the real reason for the visit would come across plain as day but go tastefully unspoken: an international trip made Lennie look like a head of state.

Like, say, a future president.

Thom grinned as he scrolled through all the good headlines the trip was generating so far. Lennie’s plane should have just touched down in Van Nuys, so she’d be back in the office soon. Itching with impatience, he slid his phone back into his pocket and strolled over to a window at the end of the hallway. He was in no mood to rejoin the other groomsmen, so he took his time scanning the crowd that was milling around in the garden among the spindly white chairs that had been set up for the ceremony. Ashley’s family was vast, well-off, and very well-connected, and he’d met many of them at other pre-wedding events. Unfortunately, it seemed that some of her most notable relatives had decided not to attend. Shame.

His phone pinged in his pocket. When he checked it, he jolted in excitement: it was an email from a Politico reporter he’d been chasing for months. Finally, the guy had gotten back to him—he wanted to stop by the office to chat about a possible article on the Singapore trip, and he wanted to do it now.

National coverage. Thom’s mouth watered, and he made a quick but easy decision.

Sliding his phone into his suit pocket, he strolled back down the hallway to the room Ashley had disappeared into. He knocked gently, and when he poked his head in, he was greeted by a cloud of perfume and tulle. “Hi, ladies,” he said with a grin. “Ashley, can I grab you for a sec?”

She rolled her eyes, clearly thinking he wanted to get her into a dark corner to make out some more. “Give me a second, girls,” she said, and followed him out into the hall.

Outside, she ran her hands up the sides of his suit jacket, looking put-upon but also warmed by the attention. “What now?” she asked. “More small talk you want to avoid?”

“Mmm,” he said, and kissed her before pulling back. “No, sadly. Um, I hate to do this—”

She frowned. “What is it?”

“Nine-one-one at the office,” he said, grimacing as if this was paining him. “I have to go.”

“Go? What do you mean, go?” She blinked, confused. “Thom, you’re in the wedding.”

“I know.” 

“You—you asked me to be in the wedding,” she said in dawning outrage. “You bothered me about it constantly until I forced my sister to make you a groomsman.”

He winced, saying, “I know, but—”

“No, are you kidding me?” she demanded. “You’re really going to leave?”

“They need me over there!” To fluff a reporter. “It’s an emergency.”

“No,” Ashley said firmly, shaking her head. “You work all the time. I’m sure they can spare you long enough not to ruin my sister’s wedding.”

“I’m so sorry, babe,” he said, pouting. “I’ll make it up to you.”

“No!” Ashley shouted quietly, seemingly struggling between her anger and her desire not to cause a scene. “I’m serious, Thom. No.”

He said nothing. As she realized that he was really about to leave, she stared daggers at him and whispered, “If you leave this wedding, we’re over.”

Thom pressed his lips together, making a point of looking pained and indecisive. When he felt like it had been long enough, he sighed and said, “Okay.”

Ashley was stunned. “You’re…you’re breaking up with me?”

“I don’t want to,” he said. He kind of did want to. The relationship had really reached the limits of its utility for him. “But babe, I told you—”

“You have to go to work,” Ashley said bitterly. “You always cared about your job more than me.”

True, but he’d been willing to put in his time anyway—after all, her uncle was a Supreme Court justice, which made her family nothing short of DC royalty. But being a groomsman had paid off a lot less than he’d hoped in that regard, and her uncle hadn’t even bothered to fly out for the wedding, which probably meant he was going to die soon anyway. So much for that connection.

Thom took Ashley’s hand in his. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice low and passionate.

Ashley glared at him, tears hovering in her eyes. Thom was used to that look—he saw it a lot when his relationships ended, if he even bothered doing it face-to-face. He just couldn’t understand why the women he dated got so invested in him. Most of them were in politics too, or in similar fields, where winning and advancing were all that mattered. Why did they let emotions get in the way of that?

Ashley yanked her hand out of his and walked away. Thom blew out a relieved breath and jogged outside to meet his Uber.

Once he was on the way, he scanned the headlines on his phone again. Right now they were in the midst of one of the most delicate stages of campaigning: the pre-primary. The first presidential primary contests were so far-off that it was too early, and would be viewed as unseemly, to be openly campaigning. Instead, Lennie had to achieve a favorable position for the upcoming primary without seeming like she was doing anything at all. It was like trying to win a race she couldn’t afford to be seen running in.

And she had her work cut out for her, because the current front-runner in both the pre- and actual primary was not Lennie but Senator Samuel Warhey. A veteran and former elementary school teacher, he’d become famous for having saved dozens of students during a dangerous flood in the eighties. That star-making moment had propelled him to the governor’s mansion and then the Senate, and he maintained the glow of nonpolitical celebrity. He was on the older side, but young enough for it to come across as gravitas. He was moderate in his voting record but passionate on the stump. He was experienced, he was popular, he was good on TV, and his staff had not returned any of Thom’s calls.

So, he’d ended up taking a job with Lennie. And that was to his liking, anyway: he could stay in the city that he loved. Technically, the office of the Governor of California was in Sacramento, but Lennie was smart enough to know that she wouldn’t recruit any top-flight talent if she forced them to relocate to that shithole. Interns and volunteers were thick on the ground in Los Angeles, and so were many of the top political reporters on the West Coast, who were much easier to entice to cover Lennie’s campaign when it was in their backyard.

Thom had grown up in the sleepy inland California suburbs, but he’d moved to LA as soon as he’d had a chance. As his ride traveled from the secluded, leafy neighborhood where the wedding had been to the dense heart of the city where Lennie’s office was located, glittering high-rises surrounded them. A shadow fell on Thom’s face as the sun was blotted out, and he smiled to himself.

Senator Warhey was from Indiana. DC, Thom would relocate for, but the Midwest? No fucking thank you.

Anyway, taking Lennie from the middle of the pack to the White House would be his crowning achievement. Thom had managed some mayoral and state senate campaigns in his day, ghostwritten a few speeches, done a few good media hits, but it hadn’t been enough to build him a national profile, not just yet. He’d have been one more aspiring staffer to Warhey. To Lennie, he was a lifeline.

The plan was this: in three months, right after New Year’s, Lennie would officially announce the launch of her campaign. She’d follow the announcement with a nationwide tour of stump speeches and town halls, highlighting her bio and her accomplishments. From there it’d be Iowa, debates, the general election, and Thom getting a sun-soaked apartment in Foggy Bottom with a nice short commute to the West Wing.

He could see it already. Propelling Lennie to the White House was a crucial part of his life plan. Since joining the campaign he’d already gained some much-deserved notoriety—he’d finally gotten that blue checkmark on Twitter, and he was racking up followers. With the Singapore trip having gone so well, it felt like all the pieces were finally falling into place.

At the office, three separate staffers congratulated him on how the trip was playing. Every TV in the bullpen was set to news coverage of the trip so that he could drink in the spoils of his plan.

And leaning against his desk, the cherry on top of his perfect day, was Felicia Morales. Felicia was Lennie’s chief of staff, and had been with her roughly since birth. As usual, she held a cooling coffee in one hand and her phone in the other. Her black hair was coiled in a neat bun at the nape of her neck, and her golden skin somehow always glowed even though she saw as little sun as Thom. Her lips and eyebrows were set in a perpetual, subtle smirk that said Don’t fuck with me.

He had definitely thought about fucking her anyway. But he and Felicia had built a good working relationship over the last year. As one of Lennie’s newer hires, it had taken time and patience for him to win her trust. Sure, she was gorgeous, and there was occasionally a tension between them that hinted there could be more, but Thom was fine with things as is. He didn’t want to rock the boat.

“Seems like it’s going well,” Felicia said mildly, not looking up from her phone. 

Thom grinned and shucked his jacket, draping it carefully over his chair. “Where’s the governor?”

“Her plane was scheduled to land a few minutes ago, so she should be en route.”

Thom sat down. “You’re not going to congratulate me?”

That finally got her to glance at him. “I said it was going well, didn’t I?”

He leaned back and closed his eyes, basking in the glow of his success. “Hey, great job,” another staffer said as he walked past Thom’s office.

Before he could respond, another voice called out, loud and brusque, “Fuck yeah!”

Thom rolled his eyes as Clay Parker strolled into view, pointing at the guy he’d thought was talking to him. He stopped when he reached Thom’s office doorway and added, loudly to make sure he’d be overheard, “Man, it’s good to finally be getting some recognition around here.”

Clay was one of the governor’s most recent hires, brought on to helm their data analytics department, whatever that was. As a person, Clay was both thoroughly unimpressive and massively impressed with himself.

“Uh, Clay?” Felicia said. “He was congratulating Thom.”

Clay scowled. “For what?”

Thom stood up and walked over to him. “The real question is, what would he have been congratulating you for?”

Clay crossed his arms as Thom came closer. He was a tall guy, but his frame wasn’t intimidating so much as gawky. It didn’t help that he wore ugly bargain-basement suits that he clearly didn’t get tailored, based on the way they gaped and bunched in strange places. His sandy-brown hair was tufty and bowl shaped, like his mother cut it for him, and he had broad, blunt features that could have made him look brooding or mysterious, except that every single emotion Clay felt appeared immediately on his face.

And every single one of Clay’s emotions was terrible.

Clay answered smugly, “Uh, for being the guy who’s single-handedly keeping this campaign afloat?”

“Oh, god,” Thom muttered.

“What do you even do around here?” Clay asked. “Oh, you sent her to another country? How is that helpful, Thom, she’s running for president of America.”

“Well, we can’t all sit in our offices and tweet all day,” Thom said.

“Hey, I’m generating the most valuable currency this campaign will ever have—page views and clicks, baby.” Thom shuddered as Clay rubbed his fingers together. “I’m building buzz.”

“Ew,” Felicia said.

“Clay, what can I do to get you to leave my office?” Thom asked. “Wait, I have an idea.” He reached for his door to slam it in Clay’s face.

Clearly predicting this, Clay jerked to the side and quickly said, “You’re just jealous about the article.”

Thom narrowed his eyes. “What article?”

Clay grinned in a way he probably thought was intriguing. “You didn’t hear?” he asked, and brazenly sauntered past Thom into his office. Thom stiffened, but Felicia held up a hand as if to say Let’s see where this goes.

Clay stopped by the TV in Thom’s office, which had been silently playing cable news. He tapped around on his phone until the screen flickered off, then lit up again with what must have been on his phone. “Read it and weep,” he said.

Thom sighed and looked at the screen, which was showing a profile of Clay on some website he’d never heard of. 

“Ousted Pinpoint Founder Clay Parker…” He read the start of the headline and didn’t bother to read the rest.

Clay’s past career, if you could call it that, had been in Silicon Valley, where he’d cofounded a database management program with his college roommate. The software had taken the tech world by storm, but right before they’d all gotten rich, Clay had been unceremoniously dumped from the company. The rumor was that his roommate had invented the whole thing and Clay had just hitched on for the ride. There was no way to tell for sure, but just weeks after the company sold, Clay’s roommate had been snapped up as the head of data analytics for Senator Warhey, and they’d gotten a nice round of press coverage about their cutting-edge campaign. Lennie had hired Clay the next week.

Clay was standing by the big-screen version of the article with his arms crossed, smug satisfaction radiating from every pore. “Great,” Thom said. “You got another gullible journalist to write about your sob story.”

“My quest for justice,” Clay corrected him. “My noble quest.”

“And why the hell did you do this now, anyway?” Thom asked, irritated. “This whole week is supposed to be about my Singapore trip.”

“The governor’s Singapore trip,” Felicia interjected.

“Hers, ours, the trip,” Thom said, waving his hand back at her and then at the screen. “This was not on the message calendar this week.”

Clay’s cocky smile just widened. “Wow. You are jealous.”

Thom ground his teeth. Felicia, meanwhile, seemed more concerned about the substance of the article, squinting as she quickly skimmed it from the screen. “Clay, this is all about you and Pinpoint,” she said. “You don’t even mention the governor. How is this supposed to help the campaign?” 

“I work for the campaign,” Clay said, as if this was obvious. “So an article about me brings publicity to the campaign.”

“Not really.”

“Uh, guys, I’m a celebrity,” Clay said, emphasizing the word so hard it made Thom’s jaw crack. “That’s why you hired me.”

The only way in which Clay was a celebrity was that he’d become a meme based on some footage of him having a meltdown outside the courthouse where he’d been locked in a legal battle with his former roommate. Clay had gone in close to one of the news cameras and yelled, “Lawsuit, bitch!” These days people mostly used it as a reaction GIF.

“You’re not a celebrity, Clay,” Thom said. “You’re like a D-list Winklevoss twin.”

He smirked. “At least people know who I am.”

“Then I feel sorry for them.”

“Oh, come on,” Clay said good-naturedly, turning back to the screen and scrolling on his phone so that the article jerked downward with a pixelated blur. “You don’t—”

“Clay,” Felicia interrupted him, staring down at her phone with a taut expression. “Is your stupid screen mirroring thing interfering with our Wi-Fi?”

“What?” Thom bleated, feeling an instinctual jab of panic as he looked at his own phone. Shocked, he realized that he hadn’t gotten any new emails in the last two minutes. Horror flooded him.

“It may have jammed the signal a little,” Clay said defensively. “But only because the office’s Wi-Fi already sucks, which by the way I’ve been trying to get you to—”

“Fix it,” Thom hissed, grabbing Clay’s tragically off-the-rack jacket in his fist. “Now. I cannot be off-line.”

“Wait,” Felicia said. “It seems like it’s coming—oh. Shit.”

Thom went cold. “What? What is it?” 

Felicia’s phone was buzzing intensely, dozens of backdated messages flowing in as the network came back online. Thom’s phone did the same a second later.

“Uh, guys?” A staffer poked his head into Thom’s office, an ominous look on his face. “I think you might want to see this.”

Dread climbing up his throat, Thom followed Fe out into the bullpen, where another staffer was turning up the volume on one of the TVs. On the news, a clip was playing of the governor at the airport just a little while ago. It was a shaky handheld video of Lennie walking across the airport tarmac to her car, smiling and laughing as she bantered with reporters. She looked a bit disheveled from her long plane ride, and a lock of hair was sticking up oddly on one side of her head, like she’d slept on it funny. As she drew even with her car and someone opened the door for her, one of the reporters shouted, “Governor, what’s with the hair?”

Lennie frowned and put a hand on her head. Then she rolled her eyes and said, at a volume the mics picked up distressingly well, “Well, that’s what happens when you have no gays on your staff.”

The clip froze, and silence fell across the office.

“Fuck,” Thom said.

“Double fuck,” Felicia said.

This was going to fuck them in the campaign. It would kill all the good press Thom had gotten from her international trip. In the invisible race, this was like falling into a sinkhole.

The comment made Lennie look homophobic. It made her look retrograde. It made her look like a senile relative everyone dreaded seeing at Thanksgiving. Their base voters were liberal—hate-has-no-home-here, we’re-glad-you’re-our neighbor, the-A-is-for-Ally liberal. Bigotry was basically the worst thing they could be accused of. 

On the TV, the clip had ended and the cable news anchor was shaking his head, looking incredibly disappointed as he cut to a six-person panel. Felicia had a look of fixed dread on her face that Thom was sure matched his own. In his palm, his phone buzzed again, and he glanced down to see a text from that Politico reporter he’d promised to meet up with: Almost there. Spoiler alert: I’m writing about the gaffe now, not the Singapore trip.

“Fuck.” His week of perfect news coverage was crashing and burning before his eyes. “Why?” he heard himself whine to Felicia. “Why the fuck would she say that?”

“Because I know I can always count on assholes like you to clean it up for me,” a silky-smooth voice said from the doorway.

Lennie Westwood was exactly what you’d want in a political candidate: beautiful, charming, and ruthless. Most voters thought of her as a down-to-earth farmer because she mentioned her family’s beloved almond farm every chance she got, despite the fact that most of her millions came from massive agribusiness and GMOs. She picked her policy positions with the help of Thom and Felicia’s polling data, and she was smart enough to seem warm instead of smart on TV. She had honey-brown hair and big hazel eyes that usually seemed wide and understanding.

Right now they were staring daggers at Thom. “Uh. Madam Governor,” Thom said feebly. “I—I didn’t—”

“Oh, I know you didn’t, Thom,” she said warningly. “I know you wouldn’t be so fucking disrespectful after I just worked the whole way back on a sixteen-hour flight that you sent me on.”

“Ma’am,” Thom said, swallowing, “I really—”

“Maybe we should do this in private,” Felicia broke in, glancing around the office. 

“Great idea,” Lennie said, with a poisonous smile. “Thom, grab us some coffee, would you? Maybe that’s a job more suited for your talents.”

Meekly, he responded, “Happy to, ma’am.” As Felicia followed the governor into her office, he grabbed her arm and said under his breath, “The blinds.”

Felicia glanced at the blinds on the interior windows of the governor’s office and nodded. Reporters were always drifting in and out of the office looking for quotes or consulting with someone on a story, and Thom didn’t want any of them to see the campaign in crisis mode. After the door shut behind her, Felicia drew them closed.

Thom turned around to find the entire bullpen staring at him. In the background, the cable news coverage was still dissecting the gaffe, and Thom heard one commentator say, “Is this the end of the Westwood campaign?” His heart was racing, and everyone in the office seemed as on edge as he was. Everyone except one.

Clay strolled past Thom, whistling under his breath. Thom straightened the cuff on his jacket and followed him down the hallway.

When they were sufficiently out of view of the bullpen, Thom grabbed Clay by the arm and threw him against the frosted-glass wall, balling his fists in Clay’s jacket and leaning in close to hiss, “You. How do you always manage to fuck up everything?”

“What?” Clay protested, though he didn’t actually push back against Thom’s arms pressing him into the wall.

“It’s always you making this office look ridiculous,” Thom spat. “If you ever fucking cut me off from the internet again, I will personally cut your balls off of your body, okay?”

“Let me go,” Clay said, squirming against him. He was a good deal taller than Thom and should have been able to fight back, but instead he was like a child, huffing and clawing at his wrists ineffectually.

“God, you’re pathetic,” Thom commented.

“Shut up,” Clay said. “You’re just pissed because you’re threatened by me.”

Thom barked out a laugh. “Threatened by you?” He tightened his fist in Clay’s shirt, pinning him in place. Clay’s whole face was flushed, his mousy hair frizzed and sticking up in all directions. Thom lowered his voice and leaned in. “Do you not understand what a joke you are?”

Clay flinched.

“My god,” Thom breathed. “You’re so useless you don’t even know how useless you are. I bet you think you’re like me, some power player with real influence around here. But you’re not. You’re nothing.”

As Thom spoke, Clay’s face went from furrowed in anger to slack with shock and humiliation. As always, Thom could read every thought that flitted across his face. It actually made his blood run cold, imagining what it would be like to be that transparent, that vulnerable—to have no poker face whatsoever.

Clay’s breath was coming fast, his wide shoulders taut where Thom was pinning him. But his pale green eyes were fixed on Thom, blinking sluggishly. As the seconds ticked by, it became clear that he was searching for a comeback, but couldn’t quite think of one.

Thom wondered what that was like. To not always have something venomous on the tip of your tongue.

The silence had gone on too long, and Thom felt more exhausted than victorious. His heart was still pounding, though it was starting to slow. He let go of Clay’s collar, shoving him away.

“Fuck you, Thom,” Clay said hollowly, and lumbered off. 

From around the corner, Thom heard Felicia call his name sharply. “You coming?”

He sighed, and followed her into the lion’s den.

Excerpted from LOVE, HATE & CLICKBAIT by Liz Bowery, © 2022 by Liz Bowery. Used with permission from MIRA/HarperCollins.

About the author:

Liz Bowery writes love stories about terrible people. Her interests include politics, cheese, TV shows you can’t stop watching even when it’s 3 AM, and playing Among Us with friends. Like most romance writers, she is a lawyer, and lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her family. Cover Story is her debut novel.

Is this one on your TBR?

Blog Tour Excerpt: Fool Me Once

Title: Fool Me Once
Author: Ashley Winstead
Genre: Romance, Contemporary
Publisher: Graydon House
Release Date: April 5, 2022

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Lee Stone is a twenty-first-century woman: she kicks butt at her job as a communications director at a women-run electric car company (that’s better than Tesla, thank you) and after work she is “Stoner,” drinking guys under the table and never letting any of them get too comfortable in her bed…

That’s because Lee’s learned one big lesson: never trust love. After four major heartbreaks set her straight, from her father cheating on her mom all the way to Ben Laderman in grad school—who wasn’t actually cheating, but she could have sworn he was, so she reciprocated in kind.

Then Ben shows up five years later, working as a policy expert for the most liberal governor in Texas history, just as Lee is trying to get a clean energy bill rolling. Things get complicated—and competitive as Lee and Ben are forced to work together. Tension builds just as old sparks reignite, fanning the flames for a romantic dustup the size of Texas.

Excerpt:

Chapter 3

Grace under Fire

The Texas State Capitol has always reminded me of Daedalus’s labyrinth, large and elaborate and winding. It could be because I was studying Greek myths the first time I toured it at the tender age of eight, and was also plagued by a truly unfortunate sense of direction. But in my defense, the capitol is made of red granite, an oddly exotic color for a government building—something you  might be more likely to find on, say, the isle of Crete. 

As I grew up, both a feminist and an environmentalist in the staunchly red state of Texas, the idea that the capitol building housed a flesh-eating man with a bull’s head struck me less and less as fictional, and more and more as an apt metaphor.  

But today, there was no doubt Ben Laderman—at this very moment, holed up somewhere inside—was my Minotaur. And for all my wine-induced bravado last night, my hands trembled as we walked up the steps to the capitol. 

The truth was, I’d imagined running into Ben a hundred times since we broke up, picturing exactly how I’d react. There was this one time I’d been sitting with my mom and Alexis in an airport parking shuttle, when a man Ben’s height and coloring lugged his suitcase up the steps. For one dizzying second, thinking it was him, my heart had tried to beat its way out of my chest. Even though the man quickly revealed himself to be a Ben imposter, the buzzing adrenaline hadn’t washed out of my veins until hours later, near the end of our flight. 

How surreal that I was minutes away from actually facing him. 

“The idea for today is to introduce Ben to the bill, since he probably hasn’t had time to review it yet, and secure his buy-in.” Wendy was walking beside me—actually, she was strutting beside me like the steps were a runway. Dakota’s chief of staff was long and lean; everywhere she walked, the world seemed to fold itself into a catwalk just for her. She wore an all-black suit, as sharp and quintessentially no-nonsense as she was. 

“Remember, the most important thing we can walk away with is Ben’s enthusiasm.” She cut a glance at me. “I need charm from you. Is that feasible?” 

“Psshh.” I gave her an affronted look. 

If only Wendy knew the truth about what we were walking into. But there was no way in hell I was going to tell her the project we’d been working on for years, the one with the potential to catapult the company to stardom, could go up in flames thanks to my messy dating life. Somehow, I’d managed to convince everyone at work that I was a talented communications professional, concealing any hint of the Lee Stone that existed outside the hours of nine to five. If Wendy—uptight stickler Wendy—knew what I was really like, I’d be fired before I could count to three. 

Within the monochromatic white walls of Lise, I was Lee, or Ms. Stone to junior employees: a take-no-prisoners messaging maven. Outside of Lise, I was Stoner. And never the twain should meet. 

“Lee’s a pro,” said Dakota, winking from my other side. “She already won over the governor. Besides, this is a good bill. The only reason they wouldn’t go for it is politics.” Dakota said the last word with scorn, and I knew why: she’d been fighting politics her whole life. 

Dakota Young was my hero. She was only ten years older than me, but she’d built Lise from the ground up, thanks to her genius inventor’s brain and business savvy. When I first started as Lise’s comms director, the newspapers had called Dakota “the female Elon Musk”—when they mentioned her at all. My first self-assigned task was to inform them that Dakota had designed and produced her electric vehicle five years before Tesla was a twinkle in Elon’s eye, and the only reason the journalists didn’t know was because our patriarchal society dismissed female inventors. Especially Mexican American female inventors. 

The truth was, Dakota had beat Elon to it and designed a car battery pack with twice the capacity of Tesla’s, meaning our vehicles could go as far as a gas car before needing to recharge. And they took less time to do that, too. There was no reason our cars shouldn’t be the clear winner in the e-vehicle market, but we consistently underperformed. My hypothesis was that it came down to our small profile. 

The disparity in attention between Dakota and Elon had inspired one of my best ideas: changing the name of the company from Unified Electric Vehicles—the yawn-worthy UEV for short—to Lise, pronounced “leez,” in honor of Lise Meitner, a nuclear physicist who’d helped discover nuclear fission, only to be excluded from winning the Nobel Prize for it. The award had gone solely to Otto Hahn, her partner. Her male partner, if I even need to say it. 

I’d gambled on my instincts, telling Dakota we shouldn’t shy away from being known as a female-led tech and auto company, but rather call it out as a strength. She’d gambled on me and agreed; the rest was history. The name change had exploded like a bomb in the press. Dakota was featured in Science, the New York Times, Good Morning America—even Fox News, though that might have been because she’s not only a badass female inventor, but with her long, dark hair and hazel eyes, a gift of her Mexican heritage, she’s a beautiful, badass female inventor. 

Since our rebranding, the whole country had been taken with her, as well they should be. Dakota was the smartest person I’d ever met, managing to toe the line of being a total boss while exuding kindness. She was, to put it mildly, my idol. And also, the older sister I’d never had. My feelings for her were totally healthy. 

I had a good track record at Lise, but passing this bill would seal the deal, establishing that I was a leader. If I was successful, I could ask for a promotion to the position I really wanted: vice president of public affairs.

Ever since reading Silent Spring at the age of ten, I’d grown up obsessed with the fact that we were poisoning our planet, and I’d dreamed of going into politics to do something about it. Being Lise’s comms director was a good position at a great company—nothing a millennial could turn her nose up at—but being in charge of our policy work was what I was really interested in, the goal that got me out of bed each morning. 

And now I was so close. 

Assuming, of course, I didn’t dissolve into a fine mist the minute I set eyes on Ben. 

I turned left toward the meeting room we always used when we came to talk to the governor. It was the biggest room, filled with highly questionable artifacts from Texas history. These artifacts were supposed to paint a picture of Texans as bold, valiant cowboys—framed letters from Mexican presidents pleading to end wars and old-timey weapons in glass cases from the years Texas was “settled” (translation: stolen from indigenous peoples). It was a room that showcased the state’s history without any sense of self-awareness, and being there always put me on edge. Made me question whether we should be working with these people at all, even on something as potentially transformative as the Green Machine bill. 

But Wendy shook her head, tugging my arm. “No Alamo room today. We’re down the hall.” She pointed to the right and I followed her, wondering at the change. 

The three of us halted outside a closed door. Dakota smiled. “Remember, this is bigger than us. We’ve got the health and well-being of the planet on our shoulders. Let’s do this for the people.” 

“No pressure,” I muttered, as Wendy swung open the door.

And there he was, the very first thing I saw. Ben Laderman. Sitting at the right hand of the governor at the conference table. 

Time seemed to freeze as the impact of seeing him in the flesh hit me like a punch to the chest. All the years we’d spent apart were obvious, because he looked different. He wasn’t the Ben from my memories. 

But he was still the easiest person in the world to describe, at least in terms of the basics: Ben Laderman looked exactly like Clark Kent from old comic books. Not Superman, with his perfect, blue-black hair, little forehead curl and confident, square jawline—Clark. 

Don’t get me wrong, Ben had the dark hair and strong jaw and ice-blue eyes, but when I’d known him, he’d kept his hair super short and worn thick-framed black glasses that mostly obscured his eyes. He was well over six feet, but he’d always hunched, like Clark slinking in late to the Daily Planet, trying to creep about unnoticed. 

The Ben Laderman sitting at the table now was…well, there was no way to describe it other than California Ben. He’d grown out his hair and wore it tucked and curling behind his ears. He’d exchanged the thick-framed black glasses for a pair of thin, transparent frames that left no question his eyes were vivid blue. 

And the suit he was sitting ramrod straight in—no more hunch—wasn’t a dark, boxy number like what he’d worn in law school for mock trial. This suit was the same blue as his eyes, a fashion risk that was both startlingly handsome and startlingly playful for someone starting work in the Texas governor’s office. 

He was different. Still knee-wobblingly beautiful, but different.

And he was staring at me.

Excerpted from Fool Me Once by Ashley Winstead, Copyright © 2022 by Ashley Winstead. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

About the author:

ASHLEY WINSTEAD is an academic turned novelist with a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature. She lives in Houston with her husband, two cats, and beloved wine fridge.

Blog Tour: The War of Two Queens

Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for.

The War of Two Queens, the stunning continuation in the Blood and Ash series from New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout is available now!

War is only the beginning…

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout comes book four in her Blood and Ash series.

From the desperation of golden crowns…

Casteel Da’Neer knows all too well that very few are as cunning or vicious as the Blood Queen, but no one, not even him, could’ve prepared for the staggering revelations. The magnitude of what the Blood Queen has done is almost unthinkable.

And born of mortal flesh…

Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for. With the strength of the Primal of Life’s guards behind her, and the support of the wolven, Poppy must convince the Atlantian generals to make war her way—because there can be no retreat this time. Not if she has any hope of building a future where both kingdoms can reside in peace.

A great primal power rises…

Together, Poppy and Casteel must embrace traditions old and new to safeguard those they hold dear—to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But war is only the beginning. Ancient primal powers have already stirred, revealing the horror of what began eons ago. To end what the Blood Queen has begun, Poppy might have to become what she has been prophesied to be—what she fears the most.

As the Harbinger of Death and Destruction.

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Excerpt

Casteel
The click and drag of claws drew closer as the weak flame above the lone candle sputtered and then went out, pitching the cell into darkness.
A thicker mass of shadows appeared in the open archway—a misshapen form on its hands and knees. It halted, sniffing as loudly as a godsdamn barrat, scenting blood. My blood.
The smooth bands of shadowstone tightened around my throat and ankles as I shifted, bracing myself. The damn stone was unbreakable, but it did come in handy. A low-pitched wail came from the creature.
“Mother—” The thing exploded out of the archway, scurrying forward, its keening moan becoming an ear-piercing screech. “—fucker.”
I waited until its stench of decay reached me and then pressed my back against the wall, lifting my legs. The length of the chain between my ankles was only about half a foot, and the shackles wouldn’t give an inch, but it was enough. Planting my bare feet into the creature’s shoulders, I got a good, most unfortunate look at the thing as its foul breath blasted me in the face.
Man, the Craven was not a fresh one.
Patches of gray flesh clung to its hairless skull, and half of its nose was gone. One entire cheekbone was exposed, eyes burning like hot coals. Lips torn and mangled— The Craven twisted its head down, sinking its fangs into my calf. Its teeth tore through the breeches and into flesh and muscle. Air hissed between my gritted teeth as fiery pain burned its way up my leg.
Worth it.
The pain was more than worth it.
I would spend an eternity taking these bites if that meant she was safe. That it wasn’t her in this cell. That she wasn’t the one in pain.
Shaking the Craven free, I dragged the short chain over the thing’s neck as I crossed my feet. I twisted at the waist, pulling the dull bone chain tight across its throat, ending the Craven’s screams. The shackle clamped down on my throat as I kept turning, cutting off my air as the chain dug into the Craven’s neck. Its arms flailed on the floor as I jerked my legs in the opposite direction, snapping the creature’s spine. The spasming became more of a twitching as I hauled it within reach of my bound hands. The chain between my wrists, connected to the shackle at my throat, was much shorter—but long enough.
I grasped the Craven’s cold, clammy jowls and brought its head down hard, slamming it against the stone floor by my knees. Flesh gave way, spraying rotting blood over my stomach
and chest. Bone split open with a wet-sounding crack. The Craven went limp. I knew it wouldn’t stay down, but it bought me some time.
Lungs burning, I unwound the chain and kicked the creature away from me. It landed by the archway in a tangled mess of limbs as I relaxed my muscles. The band around my neck was slow to loosen, eventually allowing air into my burning lungs.
I stared at the Craven’s body. At any other time, I would’ve kicked the bastard into the hall like usual, but I was weakening.
I was losing too much blood.
Already.
Not a good sign.
Breathing heavily, I looked down. Just below the shadowstone bands, shallow slices ran up the insides of my arms, past both elbows and over the veins. I counted them. Again. Just to be sure.
Thirteen.
Thirteen days had passed since the first time the Handmaidens swarmed this cell, dressed in black and as quiet as a tomb. They came once a day to cut into my flesh, siphoning my blood as if I were a damn barrel of fine wine.
A tight, savage smile twisted my mouth. I’d managed to take out three of them in the beginning. Ripped their throats out when they got too close, which was why they’d shortened the chain between my wrists. Only one of them actually stayed dead, though. The damn throats of the other two had stitched themselves closed within minutes—impressive and also infuriating to witness.
Learned something valuable, though.
Not all of the Blood Queen’s Handmaidens were Revenants.
I wasn’t sure how I could use that information yet, but I guessed they were using my blood to make brand-spanking-new Revs. Or using it as a dessert for the lucky.
Tipping back my head against the wall, I tried not to breathe too deeply. If the stench of the downed Craven didn’t choke me, the damn shadowstone around my throat would. I closed my eyes. There had been more days before the Handmaidens showed the first time. How many? I wasn’t exactly sure. Two days? A week? Or—?
I stopped myself there. Shut it the fuck down.
I couldn’t go down that road. I wouldn’t. I’d done that the last time, trying to clock the days and weeks until there came a point when time simply ceased to move. Hours became days. Weeks became years. And my mind became as rotten as the blood seeping from the Craven’s ruined head.
But things were different in the here and now.
The cell was larger, with no barred entrance. Not that there needed to be one with the shadowstone and the chains. They were a mix of iron and deity bone, connected to a hook in the wall and then to a pulley system to lengthen or shorten them. I could sit up and move a little, but that was about it. However, the cell was windowless like before, and the dank, musty smell told me they once again held me underground. The freely roaming Craven were also a new addition.
My eyes opened to thin slits. The fuck by the archway had to be the sixth or seventh one that had found its way into the cell, drawn by the scent of blood. Their appearance made me think there was one hell of a Craven problem aboveground.
I’d heard of Craven attacks inside the Rise surrounding Carsodonia before. Something the Blood Crown blamed on Atlantia and angry gods. I’d always assumed it was due to an Ascended
getting greedy and leaving mortals they’d fed on to turn. Now, I was beginning to think the Craven were possibly being kept down here. Wherever here was. And if that were the case, and they could get out and get aboveground, so could I.
If only I could get these damn chains to loosen. I’d spent an ungodly amount of time pulling on the hook. In all those attempts, it may have slipped a half-inch from the wall—if that. But that wasn’t the only thing different about this time. Other than the Craven, I’d only seen the Handmaidens. I didn’t know what to think about that. I’d figured it’d be like the last time. Too-frequent visits from the Blood Crown and their cronies, where they spent their time taunting and inflicting pain, feeding, and doing whatever they wanted.
Of course, my last go-around with this captivity bullshit hadn’t started that way. The Blood Queen had tried to open my eyes first, coax me to her side. Turn me against my family and my kingdom. When that hadn’t worked, the real fun had begun.

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About Jennifer L. Armentrout
#1 New York Times and #1 International Bestselling author Jennifer lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. All the rumors you’ve heard about her state aren’t true. When she’s not hard at work writing. She spends her time reading, watching really bad zombie movies, pretending to write, hanging out with her husband and her Border Jack Apollo. In early 2015, Jennifer was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of rare genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and death of cells in the retina, eventually resulting in loss of vision, among other complications. Due to this diagnosis, educating people on the varying degrees of blindness has become of passion of hers, right alongside writing, which she plans to do as long as she can.
Her dreams of becoming an author started in algebra class, where she spent most of her time writing short stories….which explains her dismal grades in math. Jennifer writes young adult paranormal, science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary romance. She is published with Tor, HarperCollins Avon and William Morrow, Entangled Teen and Brazen, Disney/Hyperion and Harlequin Teen. Her Wicked Series has been optioned by PassionFlix. Jennifer has won numerous awards, including the 2013 Reviewers Choice Award for Wait for You, the 2015 Editor’s Pick for Fall With Me, and the 2014/2015 Moerser-Jugendbuch- Jury award for Obsidian. Her young adult romantic suspense novel DON’T LOOK BACK was a 2014 nominated Best in Young Adult Fiction by YALSA. Her adult romantic suspense novel TILL DEATH was an Amazon Editor’s Pick and iBook Book of the Month. Her young adult contemporary THE PROBLEM WITH FOREVER is a 2017 RITA Award Winner in Young Adult Fiction. She also writes Adult and New Adult contemporary and paranormal romance under the name J. Lynn. She is published by Entangled Brazen and HarperCollins.
She is the owner of ApollyCon and The Origin Event, the successful annual events that features over a hundred bestselling authors in Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult Fiction, panels, parties, and more.

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Website: https://jenniferlarmentrout.com

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Blog Tour Excerpt: The Sorority Murder

Title: The Sorority Murder
Author: Allison Brennan
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: MIRA Books
Release Date: December 28, 2021

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Goodreads Synopsis:

A popular sorority girl. An unsolved murder. A campus podcast with chilling repercussions.

Lucas Vega is obsessed with the death of Candace Swain, who left a sorority party one night and never came back. Her body was found after two weeks, but the case has grown cold. Three years later while interning at the medical examiner’s, Lucas discovers new information, but the police are not interested.

Lucas knows he has several credible pieces of the puzzle. He just isn’t sure how they fit together. So he creates a podcast to revisit Candace’s last hours. Then he encourages listeners to crowdsource what they remember and invites guest lecturer Regan Merritt, a former US marshal, to come on and share her expertise.

New tips come in that convince Lucas and Regan they are onto something. Then shockingly one of the podcast callers turns up dead. Another hints at Candace’s secret life, a much darker picture than Lucas imagined–and one that implicates other sorority sisters. Regan uses her own resources to bolster their theory and learns that Lucas is hiding his own secret. The pressure is on to solve the murder, but first Lucas must come clean about his real motives in pursuing this podcast–before the killer silences him forever.

Excerpt:

One

Three Years Ago

Friday, April 10

 Candace Swain forced a smile as she walked out of her dorm room.

Smiling was the last thing she wanted to do, but Candace had an image to uphold.

She was going to be late for the Sigma Rho Spring Fling—the last big party before the end-of-year crunch. Studying for finals, capstones and senior projects, stress and more stress, and—for some of them—graduation.

The mild April weather was perfect for an outdoor gathering. Candace had led the sorority’s social-events committee with setup, and they’d included heat lamps along the perimeter. The Mountain View dorm—which housed all campus sororities, each with their own wing—was on the northeast corner of campus, adjacent to the football field. The Spring Fling was held on the large lawn that framed the north entrance, where they had the most room. It was open to all students for a five-dollar admission, and was one of the biggest moneymakers for the sorority, more than charities. Candace had fought for—and won—giving the profits to a rescue mission that helped people get back on their feet. She volunteered weekly for Sunrise Center, and it had changed how she viewed herself and her future. She now planned to be a nurse in the inner city, working for a clinic or public hospital, where people deserved quality health care, even if they were struggling. She even considered specializing in drug and alcohol issues, which were unfortunately prevalent among the homeless community.

She used to think of her volunteerism as penance for her failings. She wasn’t religious but had had enough preaching from her devout grandmother to have absorbed things like guilt, penance, sacrifice. Now, she looked forward to Tuesdays when she gave six hours of her time to those who were far worse off than she. It reminded her to be grateful for what she had, that things could be worse.

Candace exited through the north doors and stood at the top of the short flight of stairs that led to the main lawn. Though still early in the evening, the party was already hopping. Music played from all corners of the yard, the din of voices and laughter mingling with a popular song. In the dusk, the towering mountains to the north were etched in fading light. She breathed deeply. She loved everything about Flagstaff. The green mountains filled with pine and juniper. The crisp, fresh air. The sense of community and belonging felt so natural here, something she’d never had growing up in Colorado Springs. With graduation on the horizon, she had been feeling a sense of loss, knowing she was going to miss this special place.

She wasn’t close to her parents, who divorced right before she started high school and still fought as much as they did when they were married. She desperately missed her younger sister, Chrissy, a freshman at the University of South Carolina. She’d wanted Chrissy to come here for college, but Chrissy was a champion swimmer and had received a full scholarship to study practically a world away. Candace had no plans to return to Colorado Springs, but she didn’t know if she wanted to follow her sister to the East Coast or head down to Phoenix where they had some of the best job opportunities for what she wanted to do.

Vicky Ryan, a first year student who had aspirations of leadership, ran up to her.

“That weirdo is back,” Vicky said quietly. “Near the west steps. Just loitering there, freaking people out. Should I call campus police?”

Candace frowned. The man Vicky was referring to was Joseph, and he wasn’t really a weirdo. He was an alcoholic, and mostly homeless, who sometimes wandered onto campus and wouldn’t accept the help he had been repeatedly offered. He wasn’t violent, just confused, and sometimes got lost in his own head, largely from how alcohol had messed with his mind and body. But his problems understandably made her sorority sisters uncomfortable. He’d twice been caught urinating against the wall outside their dorm; both times, he’d been cited by campus police. He wasn’t supposed to be on campus at all anymore, and Candace knew they’d arrest him if he was caught.

“I’ll take care of it,” Candace said and made her way around the edge of the party.

She found Joseph on the narrow grassy knoll that separated the football field from the dorms. A small group of students approached her, but one in their group turned toward the grass, likely to confront Joseph.

Candace walked faster, caught up with the student, and smiled brightly. “I got this.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll handle him.”

“I said I will take care of this. I know him. But thank you anyway.”

Mr. Macho didn’t want to walk away, yet Candace stood firm. She didn’t want anyone to harass Joseph, and she knew he would listen to her. While he wasn’t violent, he could be belligerent, and being confronted by a jerk wanting to impress his girlfriend was a surefire way to trigger Joseph and have him dig in his heels. It would only lead to an arrest, and that wasn’t going to help him in the long run.

The group walked off, grumbling; Candace ignored them. She approached Joseph cautiously, so as not to startle him. “Joseph, it’s Candace,” she said. “Remember me? From Sunrise Center?”

He turned slowly at the sound of her voice. A tall man, nearly six foot four, he could intimidate people. But he was also skinny and hunched over from years of walking the streets and looking down, rummaging through garbage, with his hangdog face, ragged salt-and-pepper beard, and watery blue eyes. He was the kind of guy her grandmother would have called a bum—dressed in multiple layers of dirty, mismatched clothes, and smelling of dirt and stale beer. He looked about sixty, but she knew that he was only in his early forties. She’d heard he’d been living along Route 66 for the better part of ten years. The people who ran Sunrise Center didn’t know much about his personal life, only that when he was sober (which was rare), he would talk about home being east, at the “end of the line.” But no one knew if that meant Chicago or any of the stops in between.

Candace wanted to know more about his story, how he came to be in these circumstances, why he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—accept help. Many of the homeless who came to Sunrise for shelter or food would talk to her freely. But not Joseph. When she’d pried once, he disappeared for a while, so she stopped asking. She would rather him be safe than riding the rails, which was dangerous.

“Candace,” he said slowly after several moments.

“You can’t be here, Joseph. The campus police told you that. Don’t you remember?”

He didn’t say anything or acknowledge that he understood what she said.

“Would you like me to take you over to Sunrise Center? You can get a hot meal there, maybe a cot for the night.”

Again, silence. He turned away from her but didn’t leave.

She really didn’t want to call campus police, but if she didn’t do something, someone else would.

“Is there a reason you are here?” she asked.

“Leave me alone,” he said.

“I will, but you have to leave. Otherwise someone is going to call the police.” If they haven’t already.

He abruptly turned toward her, staggered on the slope of the lawn. His sudden movement startled her; she stepped back.

“No cops!” he shouted.

“You have to leave, Joseph,” she said, emphatic. Her heart pounded in her chest, not so much from fear but uncertainty. “Please go.”

Again, he turned abruptly, this time staggering down the short slope toward the stadium fence. She held her breath, watching him. He almost ran into the fence, put his arms out to stop himself, then just stood there. A minute later, he shuffled along the field perimeter, shoulders hunched, without looking back.

She breathed easier, relieved that he was heading off campus. She would talk to the director of Sunrise on Tuesday, when she went in to volunteer. Joseph couldn’t keep coming here, but she didn’t really want to call the authorities on him. He needed help, not more trouble, and definitely not incarceration.

Candace was about to return to the party when she heard someone call her name. She turned and saw one of her former tutoring students, Lucas Vega, running toward her. She didn’t want to talk to Lucas tonight. How many times did she have to tell him to leave her alone?

She stopped anyway and waited.

“Candace,” he said, catching his breath. “Thanks.”

“What do you want?” she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” she said bluntly.

“I didn’t mean to upset you the other day. I am sorry about that.”

She blinked. He sounded so sincere. And truth be told, something he’d said to her a few days earlier made her think long and hard about herself, her life, and the time she’d spent as a student at Northern Arizona University.

A lie for a good reason is still a lie.

Lucas and his wide-eyed, good-natured innocence, his innocuous questions had her feeling guilty for no reason. He had picked up on that. And pushed.

No reason? Ha. Plenty of reasons. All these doubts and worries she’d been having this semester, the sleepless nights, all came from something she’d done as a freshman that she now had good reason to regret. But what could she do about it? What would come of the truth now?

Maybe there was no good reason to lie.

“All right,” she said. “Thank you.” It was easier to forgive Lucas than to hold on to this anger. None of what happened was Lucas’s fault.

“So will you tutor me again, for finals?”

“No. Afraid not.” She could forgive him for prying, but she really needed first to forgive herself. And she didn’t know if she could do that with Lucas around, reminding her of her failures and mistakes. He didn’t even know what she’d done, but seeing him now was like reliving the past, and her chest tightened. “I’m sorry, but I have too much studying of my own, too many tests. And I’m not working at the writing lab anymore.”

Because of you.

Was that even fair? Was it because of Lucas…or because of her own guilt?

He was disappointed, but that wasn’t her problem.

“Okay, I understand,” he said.

“Besides, you’re smart. You’ll be fine.”

He shrugged. “Thanks.”

“Uh, you want to come to the party?” She gestured over her shoulder. They could hear the music from where they stood. “I’ll get you a pass. Won’t even cost you the five bucks.”

He shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m not really one for parties. But thanks anyway.”

He turned to leave.

“Lucas,” she said. He looked at her over his shoulder. “I’m really sorry.”

Then she left him there, waiting for something she couldn’t give him.

It took Candace several minutes before she could work up the courage to return to the party. An idea she’d been thinking about for the last few months was now fully developed, as if something inside clicked after her brief conversation with Lucas. Everything shifted into place, and she knew what she needed to do; it was the only thing she could do.

No one was going to like her decision.

When she realized she no longer cared what anyone thought, a burden lifted from her heart. She was certain then that she was doing the right thing.

Everyone at the party was asking for Candace, and Vicky had become worried when her friend and mentor hadn’t returned after thirty minutes. She sought out Taylor James, the Sigma Rho president, and told her about the homeless guy. “I don’t know where Candace is,” she said. “I should have just called campus police.”

“Candace says he’s harmless,” Taylor said, frowning. “Sometimes she’s so naive. I’ll go look for her.”

“Thanks. The party is great by the way. Everyone seems to be having fun. How does it compare to previous years?” This was the first party Vicky had helped put together for the sorority, so she was eager to know how well she’d done.

“As good or better,” Taylor said with a wide smile.

Vicky tried not to gloat as she practically floated over to her friends chatting near one of the heat lamps. It wasn’t cold, but the warmth of the heat lamp and the glow from the string lights added terrific ambience to the place.

“Oh my God, Vicky, this is a blast,” her roommate, Nicole Bergamo, said. Nicole was a half-Black, half-Italian math major who could have easily been a model she was so tall and stunning. “Everyone is talking about how great it is.”

Vicky smiled, talked for a bit, then moved around, being social, doing all the things that she’d seen Sigma Rho board members do. Hundreds of people were dancing, talking, mingling, eating, drinking, playing games. Mostly, they were having fun, which was the whole purpose. When the new Sigma Rho advisor, Rachel Wagner, told her it was the best Sigma Rho party she’d been to ever, Vicky thought she’d never come down from cloud nine.

“I agree,” said the gorgeous woman who was with Rachel. “I’m Kimberly Foster, by the way,” she introduced herself. “I’m a sorority alum, and I’m so happy I came up this weekend. You’ve done a fantastic job. Rachel said you’re part of the social-events committee. Isn’t Candace leading the committee? I haven’t seen her yet.”

“Yes, she’s around,” Vicky said. “This is all her vision. We just implemented it.”

“I love Candace. Oh! I see her over there.”

Vicky looked to where Kimberly was gesturing. Candace was talking in a small group.

“I’m going to catch up with her,” Kimberly said. “Nice to meet you, Vicky.”

The two women walked away, and Vicky continued her rounds. She was having a blast as her worries that the party might flop were replaced with pride and satisfaction over its success.

Hours later it was midnight, and per city ordinance—because their dorm bordered a public street—they had to cut off the music. That put a damper on things, but it was fine with Vicky—she was exhausted after working all day prepping and all night making sure everything was running smoothly. She was a little miffed that Candace was hardly there: Vicky had only caught a glimpse of her twice. But whatever, she’d seemed preoccupied, and that would have been a party downer.

Vicky ran into the dorm to get extra trash bags—they had to clean up tonight so wild animals wouldn’t get into the garbage and create a bigger mess in the morning. She came back out and heard voices arguing near where the DJ had been set up. He’d already packed up and left. She couldn’t hear exactly what was being said. It seemed like a quiet, intense exchange between Taylor and Candace though Rachel and her guest Kimberly were there, too. Everyone, especially Taylor, seemed angry.

About sixty people were still milling around, mostly Sigma Rho sisters helping with the cleanup. Nicole came up to Vicky and said, “What are Candace and Taylor fighting about?”

“I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Nicole said. “I heard Taylor call Candace a selfish bitch.”

“Ouch. Well, Rachel is there. She’ll mediate.”

But Rachel looked angry as well; it seemed that Candace was on one side, and the other three women were yelling at her.

“You’re wrong!” Candace screamed, and Vicky jumped. She glanced at Nicole, who looked perplexed as well. Vicky handed her a garbage bag, and they both started picking up trash. She didn’t want anyone to think she was eavesdropping.

But she was. As she inched closer to the group, she heard Kimberly say, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow, okay? When everyone has had a good night’s sleep and we can all think more clearly.”

“I am thinking clearly,” Candace said. “I’m done. Just…done.”

She left, walked right past Vicky without even seeing her. There were tears in Candace’s eyes, and Vicky didn’t know if she was angry or upset, but probably both. Vicky thought about going after her to make sure she was okay, then felt a hand on her shoulder.

She jumped, then laughed nervously when she saw Rachel. Taylor and Kim had walked away in the other direction.

“Sorry. You startled me.”

“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” Rachel said.

“I didn’t, really. Just saw that Taylor and Candace were arguing about something. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“It’s going to be fine. Just a little disagreement that Candace took personally.”

“About the party?” Vicky asked, her insecurities rising that she’d messed up something.

“Oh, no, the party was perfect. Don’t worry about that.”

Relieved, she said, “Maybe I should go talk to Candace.”

“No, let her be. I’ve known her since she was a freshman and took my Intro to Bio class. She has a big heart, and sometimes you can’t help everyone.”

Now Vicky understood, or thought she did. Taylor had been the most vocal about the creepy homeless guy hanging around the dorms, and she’d been the one who’d called campus police last time, after Candace said not to.

“Let me help,” Rachel said and took a garbage bag from Vicky’s stash.

Rachel chatted with Vicky, who felt lucky to be able to spend so much one-on-one time with her sorority advisor. Rachel was so smart, an associate professor at just thirty-two, an alum of the University of Arizona Sigma Rho chapter. Plus she had such interesting stories to share. By the time they were done with the cleanup—it didn’t take long with so many people working together—Vicky had forgotten all about the argument between Candace and Taylor.

It was the last time anyone saw Candace alive.

Excerpted from The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan, Copyright © 2021 by Allison Brennan. Published by MIRA Books.

About the author:

ALLISON BRENNAN is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over thirty novels. She has been nominated for Best Paperback Original Thriller by International Thriller Writers and the Daphne du Maurier Award. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, Allison lives in Arizona with her husband, five kids and assorted pets. The Sorority Murder is the first of a new mass market series.

Where to buy:

Have you read The Sorority Murder? What did you think of it?

Blog Tour Excerpt: The Kindred

Title: The Kindred
Author: Alechia Dow
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Release Date: January 4, 2021

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Goodreads Synopsis:

To save a galactic kingdom from revolution, Kindred mind-pairings were created to ensure each and every person would be seen and heard, no matter how rich or poor…

Joy Abara knows her place. A commoner from the lowly planet Hali, she lives a simple life—apart from the notoriety that being Kindred to the nobility’s most infamous playboy brings.

Duke Felix Hamdi has a plan. He will exasperate his noble family to the point that they agree to let him choose his own future and finally meet his Kindred face-to-face.

Then the royal family is assassinated, putting Felix next in line for the throne…and accused of the murders. Someone will stop at nothing until he’s dead, which means they’ll target Joy, too. Meeting in person for the first time as they steal a spacecraft and flee amid chaos might not be ideal…and neither is crash-landing on the strange backward planet called Earth. But hiding might just be the perfect way to discover the true strength of the Kindred bond and expose a scandal—and a love—that may decide the future of a galaxy.

Excerpt:

Excerpted from The Kindred by Alechia Dow, © 2022 by Alechia Dow. Used with permission by HarperCollins/Inkyard Press.

CHAPTER 1

FELIX

Looking this pretty takes time.

The clothes must be expensive but not gaudy, complex but not as if I put in all my effort. My hair must look styled but like I’ve walked through a gentle, aimless breeze, and I cannot be sweaty, which, on a planet known for having three suns, is rather difficult.

Parties that start early are the worst anyway. Everyone should be thanking me, not giving me the stink-eye, which they are. For some reason, they expect me to actually show up on time.

“Look who decided to join us,” the drummer from The Monchoos mutters as I step into the dimly lit hallway. We’re from the same planet, Maru-Monchuri, but there’s no comradery between us. Who could be friends with a pompous, spoiled duke like me, right? I could be better, could be the person I’m expected to be, but why waste the effort?

I give him a quick wink as I look around. This coveted, hard-to-get gig’s on Outpost 32: a man-made station between XiGra and Hali-Monchuri—Joy’s homeworld. XiGra’s a rich planet that’s not a part of the Qadin Kingdom (yet), and Hali is a part of the Qadin Kingdom, but also extremely poor. Thankfully, this outpost is the perfect mash-up of the two: international enough to be popular among wealthy travelers, cool and gritty enough to reflect the rock ’n’ roll aesthetic.

The black stone walls are plastered with band posters, grime, and beneath it all, the touch of musicians that would either make it or break it onstage. I wonder which one we’ll be tonight.

Joy humphs in my brain, but doesn’t elaborate.

She said she wouldn’t watch me choke, couldn’t be a part of another concert experience that sets off her anxiety. And yet, she can’t stay out of my head.

Of course, I’d be paired with the most judgmental Kindred in the system.

A coordinator peeks out from the curtain, a detached comm-ball hovering around their blue tentacled head. Dosani. They’re music geniuses, and probably the friendliest species in the universe. They speak Dosan into the comm, and then it flies over to us, translating.

“You’re late. Get onstage.” The voice doesn’t sound all that friendly. Weird.

My bandmates stalk behind the curtain, leaving me there in the deserted hallway for just a second. My nerves begin to spiral in the pit of my stomach, and I reach out to her, because she’s there, she’s always there—well, usually there—and she knows what I need.

Joy, I say through our connection. We’ve been together since birth. I’m exactly three minutes older than her, and I had to wait for our chips to sync for those three minutes. Not that I can remember. Still, that’s the longest I’ve been without her in my life.

The Kindred Program was created decades ago, after The Second Chaos, aka “The Revolution.” Apparently, the poor rose up, feeling like their voices weren’t heard by the rich, powerful rulers, and so the lower classes threatened a reckoning. Maru’s top scientists offered a solution: the citizens of the Monchuri system could be paired, one from the upper class, one from the lower. Establishing this would allow everyone to have a voice that could be heard, blah-blah-blah, and no more revolution. How could anyone ignore a mind pairing?

Given that I’m a duke and cousin to the Qadin royals, I was supposed to be paired with someone a little closer in economic class, because not just anyone should have a voice with the royals. Yet, I got paired with Joy.

Joy, who is dreadfully poor, living on the most impoverished planet in our system. Joy, who is my best friend, my moral compass, my judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. She’s not always my biggest fan, but she supports me in whatever I choose to do. Which isn’t much. I like traveling, adventuring to new worlds as long as my amenities are acceptable, and playing in a band. We both love music. She loves listening in as I practice, hearing new melodies outside of her Halin hymns. She thinks music has the power to transform you and make you feel anything and everything. She believes in it, just like she believes in me.

Which is why I need her right now.

Because as much as I love music—and I do, with all of my small black heart—my stage fright keeps me from making it. Already, the nausea creeps up my throat and my breaths come too fast to let oxygen into my lungs.

Joy, I say again with some urgency.

Yes, Felix…? Her question whispers through our connection. She’s there inside my mind like a perfectly clear radio channel, the only one on my brain’s frequency. She can read my thoughts, converse with me, feel my emotions. She can see what I see. She’s the one consistency in my world, and I can’t live without her. Even if our worlds seem hell-bent on keeping us apart… Nah, I don’t need to be thinking about that now.

Tell me I can do it. I run a hand through my hair and blow air out between my teeth. My feet bounce on the dirty tiles. Tell me it’s not a big deal. Easy.

You’re the most talented person I know. You can do this. And I swear, if you make me sick again, Felix, I will murder you.

I chuckle. It’s not my fault you get sympathy pains.

The stronger we accept the bond in our minds, the stronger the feelings, including negative ones. Pain, illness, anxiety, sadness, anger… It can be so intense in such bonds that if one Kindred were to die, the other might follow shortly after. It occurs in maybe one in a thousand pairings, but it happens. Until recently, I would have thought Joy and I would be one of those pairs. But she’s been pulling away more and more.

Go get onstage! They’ve been waiting hours for you and your beautiful voice. She laughs, shifting her body on the couch in her apartment, nearly toppling her sketch pad off her lap. Get up there, she commands again, and then she’s gone. She’s turned the volume down to a whisper and tuned me out.

I hate when she does that. I also don’t know how she does that. Why can’t we just always stay connected? Who needs space? Not me.

With that thought, I take another deep breath and strut down the hall. I tug on the velvet red curtain and step through onto the sticky levitating stage. We lift a few feet off the ground, but thankfully, unlike in most of the more modern venues, the floor doesn’t spin. Thank the Gods.

My bandmates stare at me, wide-eyed as the crowd goes wild. The excitement in the room is palpable, like a glittery haze that coats my limbs and makes me want to sing and dance and be alive. My chest rises and falls in sync with their cheers and stomps.

I both love it and hate it up here.

The band’s set up and the microphone’s hot. The lights are low, the room’s packed, and I’m going to sing, even if my stomach churns and threatens to upchuck my dinner of steamed hopfal leaves packed with gooey black rice.

I swagger up to that mic, my legs wobbling like jelly. “Hello. I’m—”

“I love you, Felix!” someone in the audience shouts, though who it is, I can’t see. They’re all shadows and faceless bodies from up here. Just the way I like them.

The light beats down on me, and sweat prickles at the edge of my scalp.

“I love you, too.” I laugh into the mic, which earns a few grumbles from my bandmates. “Now I want to…” I trail off as a shadowed body comes into view. Their eyes bore into mine. The face is one I’d know anywhere. A face that shouldn’t be here.

My throat dries up as he stalks through the crowd, waiting for me to finish. I step back, almost stumbling over my own feet. With a fleeting glance at my bandmates, I trip offstage and toward him.

The crowd boos. My brain’s short-circuiting. He’s not supposed to be in this part of my life. He’s part of the Duke’s life, the one I shrug off and leave at home whenever the opportunity arises. His being here can only be bad for me. It can only mean trouble.

My feet are on autopilot as he nods his head over to a private booth reserved just for us. I can feel my bandmates’ glares, but they begin strumming on their guitars as if I was never really a part of their group anyway—which I wasn’t. The drums pick up and the audience forgets all about me and my promises of a good time as they dance.

My visitor wears a long black tunic embroidered with crimson thread and matching pants. His golden hair’s slicked back and his vibrant golden eyes flash as I slide into the booth first. He takes the seat opposite me, flips on the privacy switch in the center of the table, and then folds his hands on the table as a translucent wall falls around the perimeter of the booth.

We sit in silence for only a moment but it feels like a lifetime as my heart hammers unsteadily in my chest.

“Do you know why I’m here, Duke Hamdi?” he asks finally, his head tilting to the side.

I suck my teeth. “My parents think I’m at some interplanetary summit for the children of dignitaries on Kippilu and they found out I was lying?”

“I don’t work for your parents.” Arren huffs, leaning back. “I work for the Qadins. You may remember them as the royals that pay for the pricey state-of-the-art ships you use to jump planets and slum in music halls—” he waves his arm at the room “—your flashy clothes and instruments that you seemingly never play onstage, and the countless opportunities that have been provided to you over the course of your short life.” There’s a bitter edge to his words that has me sitting taller. “You are a disappointment to their name.”

Arren’s a royal advisor—the royal advisor, and he has done enough over the years to earn my fear and respect. But there has to come a time when I crack.

Tonight, I was going to finally get over my stage fright and make a name for myself that had nothing to do with my actual name. All of my hard work, practicing until late at night, and pushing myself to new limits both artistically and mentally would have paid off. Instead, I’m here, missing my chance, being scolded for chasing my dreams by the royal advisor that threatened my Kindred’s life.

I will not forget, and I will not forgive.

“Do you think by doing all the Qadins’ dirty work, it’ll make you one of them? Do you think they consider you their equal?” I try to twist my lips at the corners, even if dread sinks into the bottom of my stomach. “What’ll happen if I go into politics like they so desire and come for your job?” I’m balancing on the tip of a sword, and at any second, I’ll get cut.

“You’re a fool.” Arren chuckles, though there’s no humor in it. “I do not wish to be a Qadin. I am not their equal. And you…” He trails off suddenly to look at the carefree dancers and the band that went on without me. “You have responsibilities that come with your title.”

“There are other dukes, other cousins.” My nostrils flare as I watch him. “Why do they hold me to such high standards when the others are free to do what they want?”

“Because you are meant to be much more than you are. Soon, you’ll need to step in and step up.” He holds my gaze now, and in it, I see a flicker of something that’s not frustration. It’s a thoughtful, plotting look. Arren’s got plans, and he wants me to follow them. “Soon your Kindred will marry and move on with her life. But where will you be? Failing on the stages of dingy bars—because at some point the good ones will stop booking you no matter your title—and burning through your trust fund? Do you know how many people would kill for the opportunities you have?”

Something about that question furthers my unease. Who would kill for opportunities? The Kindred Program makes sure that people are heard and happy. Murder doesn’t happen anymore. Citizens are content with their roles in life.

“Don’t you have other things to do, like I don’t know, figure out the Ilori conflict or something? Aren’t they trying to colonize us? The Qadins should be putting their energy into that, not whatever this is. What could they possibly want with me? I have no power or ambitions in politics.”

“The Qadins didn’t send me, so I don’t rightly know.” He stands, running his hands down his spotless tunic as I digest that news. If they didn’t send him, why is he here? “I came because I am looking out for your best interests. King Qadin would have no issue ignoring your existence, but I know you have a great destiny. One day, you may have power, and you could create change. Stop this music nonsense and join me, join my side. Together, we can pave our own paths in this kingdom. You could find your voice, since you can’t seem to find it onstage, and finally reach your potential. I believe in you—can you say that about anyone else?”

I barely keep the anger from my voice as I shuffle my legs beneath the table. “Is that why you threatened my Kindred?” I remember the way he had guards surround her without her noticing, pointing their weapons at her as he made me promise to never see her. Never allow her into my heart. “Was that your way of believing in me?”

“I was following orders. I work for the Qadins, but I am not one of them, and with Princess LaTanya’s impending nuptials with her Kindred, Johann Kao, I never will be.” He shakes his head, as if he didn’t mean to say that. Admittedly, it was a weird thing to say, but then I do know from the tabloids that he’s enamored with LaTanya… Still, that thought flees my mind as he continues, “They were right to make sure you keep your distance from your Kindred. There is only one person you can rely on, Duke Hamdi, and I believe, in time, you’ll come to see that. Someday soon, you will need my help. And I won’t hesitate to give it.” He slips a card onto the table and with that, he strides off, disappearing into the dancing fray.

My fingers edge the tip of the card. It’s solid black. It’s an upload, something I’d need to stick into a holo-frame monitor to access. It probably has Arren’s private info encrypted for me, so that I can learn to live up to my potential and what—overthrow the Qadins and stage a coup with him? Why would I do that? What makes him think I want any responsibility that big? Despite what he says, I learned early that my name gets me in doors, gets me a seat at the table, but that’s it. I don’t matter. No one cares about my opinions or thoughts, so why should I have them anymore?

I shove it deep in my pocket and punch the button in the center of the table for service.

He chose this night, this moment, on purpose. He probably even had Outpost 32 book this gig for me just so he could ruin it. So I would be miserable and malleable to whatever he’s plotting. But he underestimated my indifference.

At least I’m here where I can get drunk enough to drown my sorrow as the crowd dances and the music thrums through them, and me.

At least his newest power move will keep me from thinking about Joy.

About the author:

Alechia Dow is a former pastry chef, teacher, and librarian. When she’s not writing, you can find her having epic dance parties with her little girl, baking, reading, or traveling.

Where to buy:

Have you read The Kindred? What did you think of it?

Blog Tour Excerpt: Such a Good Wife

Title: Such a Good Wife
Author: Seraphina Nova Glass
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: Graydon House Books
Release Date: August 10, 2021

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Goodreads Synopsis:

Betrayal was just the beginning…

Melanie Hale is a devoted mother to her two children, a diligent caregiver to her ailing mother-in-law and a trusted neighbor in their wealthy Louisiana community. Above all, she’s a loving partner to her wonderful husband, Collin.

Then there are the parts of herself that Mel keeps hidden. She’s exhausted, worried and unfulfilled. So much so that one night, after a writers’ group meeting, Mel begins an affair with a successful local author named Luke. Suddenly she’s transformed into a role she doesn’t recognize—a woman who deceives with unseemly ease. A woman who might be capable of just about anything.

When Mel finds Luke’s dead body in his lavish rented house, she realizes just how high the stakes have become. Not only does she have to keep her affair a secret in order to preserve her marriage, but she desperately needs to avoid being implicated in Luke’s death. But who would want to kill him? Who else in her life is keeping secrets? And most terrifying of all, how far will they—and she—go to keep those secrets hidden?

Excerpt:

Chapter Two

Before

I can pinpoint the day that set everything in motion. Gillian Baker, one block over, holds a book club at her house once a week. Reluctantly, and at her insistence, I finally decided to join. I squeezed a cylinder of cookie dough out of its plastic tube, cut it into disks and put a tray of the artificial-tasting dough in the oven so I had something to bring and pass off as my own. Collin thought the book club idea was great and might inspire me. I told him it’s just a kid-free night for the neighborhood wives so they can drink wine and make vapid, uninformed comments on great literature, but he still thought I would be in my element and should give it a try.

I was going to be a scholar once upon a time, but I dropped out of my master’s program when we learned about Bennett’s condition. I wasn’t forced to stay home, but we decided it made sense. It was for the best, and even better than a degree, because I could write books from home and still pursue that dream. What a gift! All the time in the world to write the great American novel. Except I haven’t written any books, have I? What the hell do I really have to say anyway? Life has gone out of its way to ignore me in many regards. Shelby Fitch two doors down was in the peace corps in freaking Guatemala for two years before she married into this neighborhood. She should write the book.

What will my topics be? “Mom cleans up kid’s barf during carpool.”

“Mom waits half a day for dishwasher repair guy, and guess what? He never shows.”

“Mom tries a Peppa Pig cake recipe from Pinterest, but it looks like deranged farm swine with a phallic nose and makes son cry.” I have nothing to say. The other day I thought I’d get serious again and try to really sit and brainstorm some ideas. I ended up watching videos of people getting hurt on backyard trampolines and a solid hour of baby goats jumping around in onesies. So, I guess maybe at least getting my mind back into the literary world can’t hurt.

At my dressing table, I pulled my hair back and slipped on some dangly earrings. It was my first time out of yoga pants that week, and it felt nice. I applied lip gloss and pressed my lips together; I could hear the chaos begin in the background. The oven was beeping nonstop, beckoning Collin to take out the premade dinner he’d been heating up for the kids, but he was arguing with Ben about a video game he refused to turn off. He still had to make a plate for Claire and help the kids with homework after dinner, and Ralph, our elderly basset hound, was barking excessively at something outside, raising the tension in the room. I felt guilty leaving, but when I appeared in the front hall in a sundress, Collin lit up and gave me a kiss, telling me he had it under control. I knew he ultimately did. It’s not rocket science, it’s just exhausting and emotionally bloodsucking, and he’d already had a twelve-hour day of anxiety at work.

I kissed the top of Ben’s head and said goodbye to Rachel, who was paying no attention, and then I walked out the front door. I carried the plate of cookies and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye as I walked across the street. They were trying too hard, trying to be literary. Why not just choose Fifty Shades or a cozy mystery? When Rachel had to read this book for English, she called it a turd with covers. I, on the other hand, spent hours making meticulous notes so I could be sure to make comments that were sharp and poignant. I rehearse them in my head as I walk.

I was the last to arrive; there were a few other moms from the block already there. We all did the obligatory cheek kisses. Gillian’s living room looked like she was hosting a dinner party rather than a book club. Chardonnay was chilling in ice on the kitchen island next to a spread of food that could have come from a Vegas buffet. I wished I could hide my pathetic tube cookies.

“Wow, Gill. Did you do all this?” I asked, impressed.

“Oh, hell no. Are you kidding? It’s catered, silly.”

I can’t believe she’s had her book club catered. Everyone has wine and something fancy on a toothpick in their hands. She put my sad cookies next to the beautiful chiffon cake on the island, and I was mortified. There was cling wrap over them for God’s sake—on a Spider-Man paper plate left over from Ben’s last birthday. Kill me.

She poured me a glass, pretending not to think anything of my trashy offering, and I walked carefully over her white rug as we made our way into the sitting room. Of course she has a “sitting room.” It’s a bright space in the front of the house with vaulted ceilings and a blingy chandelier. We all perched on the edges of pale furniture. I never did quite know how to feel about these women. They’ve welcomed me so warmly, but they sometimes seem like a foreign species to me. Yes, I live in this neighborhood too, but it’s because of Collin’s success, not anything I’ve done. I guess they can probably say the same. I still feel sort of like an imposter. I don’t lean into it the way they seem to.

I didn’t intend to stay home, of course, but I still feel like I was destined for a career, never dependent on anyone else. It’s not that I feel dependent on Collin. That’s not the right word. What we have is ours. The way I contribute is something he could never handle, but I guess I don’t take it for granted the way they seem to. Gillian was constantly remodeling her house and upgrading things that you’d think it impossible to upgrade. She had a stunning outdoor kitchen next to a pool that appears damn near Olympic-sized. It was even highlighted in the local home tour magazine. One day she gutted the whole thing because she wanted the pool to be teardrop-shaped instead. And here I am using Groupons for my facials.

Even that sounds indulgent. Facials. I grew up in a doublewide trailer in Lafayette with a mother who worked the night shift at the hospital and an alcoholic father who spent his days quiet and glassy-eyed on the front porch, staring at some invisible thing, lost in another time. It will never feel right to buy five-hundred-dollar shoes or drive a luxury car, although I’d never want to lose the safety of it and I’m grateful my children will never have to struggle the way I did. This comfort is for them. This safety is for them. That’s the bottom line, so I brushed away the negative thoughts.

Tammy commented on Gillian’s bracelet. She held Gillian’s wrist, examining it. Everyone oohed and aahed as Gillian explained that it was an early birthday gift from Robert and she had to get it insured. I have never understood charm bracelets. An ugly soccer ball hangs off of her silver chain, but I made my face look delighted along with the others. After we settled in, I assumed the small talk was over and we’d dig into a great piece of literature. Kid-free, wine-lubricated, I was ready.

“Oh my God, you guys, did you see Bethany Burena at Leah’s wedding?” Karen asked. There was mocking laughter. I’d been at that wedding, but I didn’t know what they were referring to, so I stayed quiet. Liz chimed in.

“God, it looked like someone stuffed a couple honey-baked hams into the back of her dress.”

“And the worst part is she did that on purpose,” Tammy said, placing her glass of wine on an end table so she could use her hands to talk. “That ain’t too much buttercream, y’all!” Then she held her hands to her mouth and pretended to whisper sideways. “Although did you see her shoveling it in at the cake table?”

“She had those babies implanted,” Karen agreed.

“No!” Gillian gasped.

“Yep. Ass implants. Ass-plants.” Everyone roared with laughter. I forced a chuckle so I didn’t stand out. I hated these people, I realized right in that moment. I longed to leave. I could fake a headache, or check in at home and say there’s a problem with Ben, I thought. Why didn’t I? Why do I need their approval? Karen kept the gossip going.

“That’s not as bad as Alice. She brought the guy who cleans her pool to the wedding!

“What do you mean?” Liz asked.

“As a date.”

“No!”

“Scandal much?” Tammy was delighted she had everyone in hysterics.

“Alice Berg?” I asked, not understanding the social sin she’d committed. “Isn’t she single—like, divorced, I thought.”

“Yeah, but she brought The. Pool. Guy. Sad.”

“So sad,” Karen echoed.

“Desperate,” Liz added. She noticed the book in my hands. “What’s that?”

“What do you mean? It’s the book,” I said with a lighthearted scoff.

“Oh, Mel. I’m so sorry I didn’t mention it, I guess I thought everyone just sort of got it—especially since the book was something so random,” Gillian said.

“Got what?”

“We don’t, like, read it. We just need an excuse to get rid of the kids and hubbies for one night. I think we deserve at least that?” she said, glancing around for allies.

“Damn right we do.” Liz held her wine up and gulped it down, a sort of toast to herself. “You didn’t read it, did you?” I didn’t answer. I felt like an idiot. I was joking when I said it was an excuse to drink and have a night away. I was at least half joking. I thought that I may have found a few kindred spirits, perhaps—that they were at least making a half-assed attempt at self-betterment.

“I just skimmed it,” I said.

I was probably visibly blushing, so I picked a strawberry carved into a rose shape from the table and picked at it.

“Mel has a master’s in literature. Did y’all know that?” Gillian said, maybe in an attempt to redeem herself from indirectly embarrassing me.

“Oh my gosh, smarty-smart pants. Look at you.” Karen swatted my leg and smiled, supportively. I wanted the attention off me as soon as possible, so I didn’t correct her and say that it was creative writing…and that I never finished the degree.

“You should give me the name of your caterer,” I said, picking up a skewer of chicken and taking a bite. “I was gonna do a thing for Collin’s birthday. Maybe a trip, but if we stay in town we’ll have people to the house.” The subject is officially changed. Her eyes lit up.

“Oh my gosh, I have their card. I told them they should pay me for how many referrals I’m getting for them. Their almond torte is totally to die for. Seriously. If you don’t do a cake, maybe mini tortes.”

“Oh, cute!” Liz said.

We talked about mini tortes, whose phone carrier is the worst, Karen’s daughter’s (nonexistent) modeling career and Botox for the next two hours until I walked home unsteadily with my plate of cookies that Gillian gracefully sent home with me. I had to laugh a little at the idea that they met weekly, like they’d read that much. Made sense now. I tossed The Catcher in the Rye in Brianna Cunningham’s garbage can, which she’d failed to pull back into the garage (Tammy actually made mention of that particular oversight earlier in the evening), and I didn’t know if the crushing disappointment of the evening was worse than going back home to Claire’s bedpan and the mounting stress of teen angst and Ben’s moods. I wished I could just sit in the Cunninghams’ yard, drunk for a little while, but someone would see, and it would be discussed at some other neighbor’s book club.

The temperate dusk air was dense with mosquitoes and the chatter of crickets. I took my time walking back. When I approached our house, I saw Collin in an orange rectangle of warm kitchen light. He was washing dishes, sort of, but mostly looking past the kitchen island at the TV in the living room. I concentrated on appearing more sober than I was as I entered the kitchen. I sat at the table, pulling off my shoes, and he offered me a glass of wine.

“No, thanks.” I got up and filled a plastic Bob the Builder cup under the tap, then sat on a counter stool. He pulled one up next to me.

“Was it fun?” he asked, hopefully, wanting me to find an outlet—some joy in my life while things are so tough. I didn’t know if I should tell him the truth or make him happy, so I went down the middle.

“It was okay.”

“Just okay?”

“Eh. Not exactly the literary minds I was hoping to connect with.”

“I’m sorry.” He squeezed my hand. “I took Ben to pick out a new chapter book at Classics tonight.”

“Oh fun. What did he pick out?” I asked, thinking Collin was changing the subject.

He handed me a little postcard advert. “There’s a writers’ group starting next week.”

I looked over the glossy square and it had details welcoming any local writers to join the weekly Thursday group to workshop their writing. Before I could dismiss the assertion that I’m a “writer,” he pointed to the bullet point that stated “all levels welcome.” It was so incredibly sweet that he brought this for me, not only to encourage me in pursuing something I care about, but was also willing to hold down the fort every Thursday. I kissed him.

“That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“But?” he asked, anticipating a “no,” but I didn’t have a reason to say no. I mean, except that I had no writing to present to the group. I could write a critical essay on The Catcher in the Rye. That was about it. It sounded thrilling though. Maybe some accountability and pressure would be just what I needed. I glanced past Collin into the living room and saw Bennett asleep in front of WWE SmackDown! on the TV. I gave Collin a look.

“Well, he’s asleep, isn’t he?” he defended himself. Ismiled and shook my head, pressing my thumb into the crumbs on his plate and tasting the remnants of the cookies I left behind for the kids to eat.

“I guess I can try it,” I said, standing and rinsing the plate. Words I’d give anything to take back.

Excerpted from Such A Good Wife by Seraphina Nova Glass, Copyright © 2021 by Seraphina Nova Glass. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

About the Author:

Seraphina Nova Glass is a professor and playwright-in-residence at the University of Texas, Arlington, where she teaches film studies and playwriting. She holds an MFA in playwriting from Smith College, and she’s also a screenwriter and award-winning playwright. Seraphina has traveled the world using theatre and film as a teaching tool, living in South Africa, Guam and Kenya as a volunteer teacher, AIDS relief worker, and documentary filmmaker.

Where to Buy:

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Have you read Such a Good Wife? What did you think of it?

Blog Tour Excerpt: The Unwilling

Title: The Unwilling
Author: Kelly Braffet
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Mira
Release Date: February 11, 2020

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Goodreads Synopsis:

A penetrating tale of magic, faith and pride…

The Unwilling is the story of Judah, a foundling born with a special gift and raised inside Highfall castle along with Gavin, the son and heir to Lord Elban’s vast empire. Judah and Gavin share an unnatural bond that is both the key to her survival… and possibly her undoing.

As Gavin is groomed for his future role, Judah comes to realize that she has no real position within the kingdom, in fact, no hope at all of ever traveling beyond its castle walls. Elban – a lord as mighty as he is cruel – has his own plans for her, for all of them. She is a mere pawn to him, and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

But outside the walls, in the starving, desperate city, a magus, a healer with his own secret power unlike anything Highfall has seen in years, is newly arrived from the provinces. He, too, has plans for the empire, and at the heart of those plans lies Judah… The girl who started life with no name and no history will soon uncover more to her story than she ever imagined.

An epic tale of greed and ambition, cruelty and love, this deeply immersive novel is about bowing to traditions and burning them down.

Excerpt:

Prologue

On the third day of the convocation, two of the Slonimi scouts killed a calf, and the herbalist’s boy wept because he’d watched the calf being born and grown to love it. His
mother stroked his hair and promised he would forget by the time the feast came, the following night. He told her he would never forget. She said, “Just wait.”

He spent all of the next day playing with the children from the other caravan; three days before, they’d all been strangers, but Slonimi children were used to making friends quickly. The group the boy and his mother traveled with had come across the desert to the south, and they found the cool air of the rocky plain a relief from the heat. The others had come from the grassy plains farther west, and were used to milder weather. While the adults traded news and maps and equipment, the children ran wild. Only one boy, from the other caravan, didn’t run or play: a pale boy, with fine features, who followed by habit a few feet behind one of the older women from the other caravan. “Derie’s apprentice,” the other children told him, and shrugged, as if there was nothing more to say. The older woman was the other group’s best Worker, with dark hair going to grizzle and gimlet eyes. Every time she appeared the herbalist suddenly remembered an herb her son needed to help her prepare, or something in their wagon that needed cleaning. The boy was observant, and clever, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that his mother was trying to keep him away from the older woman: she, who had always demanded he face everything head-on, who had no patience for what she called squeamishness and megrims.

After a hard day of play over the rocks and dry, grayish grass, the boy was starving. A cold wind blew down over the rocky plain from the never-melting snow that topped the high peaks of the Barriers to the east; the bonfire was warm. The meat smelled good. The boy had not forgotten the calf but when his mother brought him meat and roasted potatoes and soft pan bread on a plate, he did not think of him. Gerta—the head driver of the boy’s caravan—had spent the last three days with the other head driver, poring over bloodline records to figure out who between their two groups might be well matched for breeding, and as soon as everybody had a plate of food in front of them they announced the results. The adults and older teenagers seemed to find this all fascinating. The herbalist’s boy was nine years old and he didn’t understand the fuss. He knew how it went: the matched pairs would travel together until a child was on the way, and then most likely never see each other again. Sometimes they liked each other, sometimes they didn’t. That, his mother had told him, was what brandy was for.

The Slonimi caravans kept to well-defined territories, and any time two caravans met there was feasting and trading and music and matching, but this was no ordinary meeting, and both sides knew it. After everyone had eaten their fill, a few bottles were passed. Someone had a set of pipes and someone else had a sitar, but after a song or two, nobody wanted any more music. Gerta—who was older than the other driver—stood up. She was tall and strong, with ropy, muscular limbs. “Well,” she said, “let’s see them.”

In the back, the herbalist slid an arm around her son. He squirmed under the attention but bore it.

From opposite sides of the fire, a young man and a young woman were produced. The young man, Tobin, had been traveling with Gerta’s people for years. He was smart but not unkind, but the herbalist’s son thought him aloof. With good reason, maybe; Tobin’s power was so strong that being near him made the hair on the back of the boy’s neck stand up. Unlike all the other Workers—who were always champing at the bit to get a chance to show off—Tobin was secretive about his skills. He shared a wagon with Tash, Gerta’s best Worker, even though the two men didn’t seem particularly friendly with each other. More than once the boy had glimpsed their lantern burning late into the night, long after the main fire was embers.

The young woman had come across the plains with the others. The boy had seen her a few times; she was small, round, and pleasant-enough looking. She didn’t strike the boy as particularly remarkable. But when she came forward, the other caravan’s best Worker—the woman named Derie—came with her. Tash stood up when Tobin did, and when they all stood in front of Gerta, the caravan driver looked from one of them to the other. “Tash and Derie,” she said, “you’re sure?”

“Already decided, and by smarter heads than yours,” the gimlet-eyed woman snapped.

Tash, who wasn’t much of a talker, merely said, “Sure.”

Gerta looked back at the couple. For couple they were; the boy could see the strings tied round each wrist, to show they’d already been matched. “Hard to believe,” she said. “But I know it’s true. I can feel it down my spine. Quite a legacy you two carry; five generations’ worth, ever since mad old Martin bound up the power in the world. Five generations of working and planning and plotting and hoping; that’s the legacy you two carry.” The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. “No pressure.”

A faint ripple of mirth ran through the listeners around the fire. “Nothing to joke about, Gerta,” Derie said, lofty and hard, and Gerta nodded.

“I know it. They just seem so damn young, that’s all.” The driver sighed and shook her head. “Well, it’s a momentous occasion. We’ve come here to see the two of you off, and we send with you the hopes of all the Slonimi, all the Workers of all of our lines, back to the great John Slonim himself, whose plan this was. His blood runs in both of you. It’s strong and good and when we put it up against what’s left of Martin’s, we’re bound to prevail, and the world will be free.”

“What’ll we do with ourselves then, Gert?” someone called out from the darkness, and this time the laughter was a full burst, loud and relieved.

Gerta smiled. “Teach the rest of humanity how to use the power, that’s what we’ll do. Except you, Fausto. You can clean up after the horses.”

More laughter. Gerta let it run out, and then turned to the girl.

“Maia,” she said, serious once more. “I know Derie’s been drilling this into you since you were knee-high, but once you’re carrying, the clock is ticking. Got to be inside, at the end.”

“I know,” Maia said.

Gerta scanned the crowd. “Caterina? Cat, where are you?”

Next to the boy, the herbalist cleared her throat. “Here, Gerta.”

Gerta found her, nodded, and turned back to Maia. “Our Cat’s the best healer the Slonimi have. Go see her before you set out. If you’ve caught already, she’ll know. If you haven’t, she’ll know how to help.”

“It’s only been three days,” Tobin said, sounding slighted.

“Nothing against you, Tobe,” Gerta said. “Nature does what it will. Sometimes it takes a while.”

“Not this time,” Maia said calmly.

A murmur ran through the crowd. Derie sat up bolt-straight, her lips pressed together. “You think so?” Gerta said, matching Maia’s tone—although nobody was calm, even the boy could feel the sudden excited tension around the bonfire.

“I know so,” Maia said, laying a hand on her stomach. “I can feel her.”

The tension exploded in a mighty cheer. Instantly, Tobin wiped the sulk off his face and replaced it with pride. The boy leaned into his mother and whispered, under the roar, “Isn’t it too soon to tell?”

“For most women, far too soon, by a good ten days. For Maia?” Caterina sounded as if she were talking to herself, as much as to her son. The boy felt her arm tighten around him. “If she says there’s a baby, there’s a baby.”

After that the adults got drunk. Maia and Tobin slipped away early. Caterina knew a scout from the other group, a man named Sadao, and watching the two of them dancing together, the boy decided to make himself scarce. Tash would have an empty bunk, now that Tobin was gone, and he never brought women home. He’d probably share. If not, there would be a bed somewhere. There always was.

In the morning, the boy found Caterina by the fire, only slightly bleary, and brewing a kettle of strong-smelling tea. Her best hangover cure, she told her son. He took out his notebook and asked what was in it. Ginger, she told him, and willowbark, and a few other things; he wrote them all down carefully. Labeled the page. Caterina’s Hangover Cure.

Then he looked up to find the old woman from the bonfire, Derie, listening with shrewd, narrow eyes. Behind her hovered her apprentice, the pale boy, who this morning had a bruised cheek. “Charles, go fetch my satchel,” she said to him, and he scurried away. To Caterina, Derie said, “Your boy’s conscientious.”

“He learns quickly,” Caterina said, and maybe she just hadn’t had enough hangover tea yet, but the boy thought she sounded wary.

“And fair skinned,” Derie said. “Who’s his father?”

“Jasper Arasgain.”

Derie nodded. “Travels with Afia’s caravan, doesn’t he? Solid man.”

Caterina shrugged. The boy had only met his father a few times. He knew Caterina found Jasper boring.

“Healer’s a good trade. Everywhere needs healers.” Derie paused. “A healer could find his way in anywhere, I’d say. And with that skin—”

The boy noticed Gerta nearby, listening. Her own skin was black as obsidian. “Say what you’re thinking, Derie,” the driver said.

“Highfall,” the old woman said, and immediately, Caterina said, “No.”

“It’d be a great honor for him, Cat,” Gerta said. The boy thought he detected a hint of reluctance in Gerta’s voice.

“Has he done his first Work yet?” Derie said.

Caterina’s lips pressed together. “Not yet.”

Charles, the bruised boy, reappeared with Derie’s satchel.

“We’ll soon change that,” the old woman said, taking the satchel without a word and rooting through until she found a small leather case. Inside was a small knife, silver-colored but without the sheen of real silver.

The boy noticed his own heartbeat, hard hollow thuds in his chest. He glanced at his mother. She looked unhappy, her brow furrowed. But she said nothing.

“Come here, boy,” Derie said.

He sneaked another look at his mother, who still said nothing, and went to stand next to the woman. “Give me your arm,” she said, and he did. She held his wrist with a hand that was both soft and hard at the same time. Her eyes were the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen.

“It’s polite to ask permission before you do this,” she told him. “Not always possible, but polite. I need to see what’s in you, so if you say no, I’ll probably still cut you, but—do I have your permission?”

Behind Derie, Gerta nodded. The bruised boy watched curiously.

“Yes,” the boy said.

“Good,” Derie said. She made a quick, confident cut in the ball of her thumb, made an identical cut in his small hand, quickly drew their two sigils on her skin in the blood, and pressed the cuts together.

The world unfolded. But unfolded was too neat a word, too tidy. This was like when he’d gone wading in the western sea and been knocked off his feet, snatched underwater, tossed in a maelstrom of sand and sun and green water and foam—but this time it wasn’t merely sand and sun and water and foam that swirled around him, it was everything. All of existence, all that had ever been, all that would ever be. His mother was there, bright and hot as the bonfire the night before—not her face or her voice but the Caterina of her, her very essence rendered into flame and warmth.

But most of what he felt was Derie. Derie, immense and powerful and fierce: Derie, reaching into him, unfolding him as surely as she’d unfolded the world. And this was neat and tidy, methodical, almost cold. She unpacked him like a trunk, explored him like a new village. She sought out his secret corners and dark places. When he felt her approval, he thrilled. When he felt her contempt, he trembled. And everywhere she went she left a trace of herself behind like a scent, like the chalk marks the Slonimi sometimes left for each other. Her sigil was hard-edged, multi-cornered. It was everywhere. There was no part of him where it wasn’t.

Then it was over, and he was kneeling by the campfire, throwing up. Caterina was next to him, making soothing noises as she wrapped a cloth around his hand. He leaned against her, weak and grateful.

“It’s all right, my love,” she whispered in his ear, and the nervousness was gone. Now she sounded proud, and sad, and as if she might be crying. “You did well.”

He closed his eyes and saw, on the inside of his eyelids, the woman’s hard, angular sigil, burning like a horse brand.

“Don’t coddle him,” Derie said, and her voice reached through him, back into the places inside him where she’d left her mark. Caterina’s arm dropped away. He forced himself to open his eyes and stand up. His entire body hurt. Derie was watching him, calculating but—yes—pleased. “Well, boy,” she said. “You’ll never be anyone’s best Worker, but you’re malleable, and you’ve got the right look. There’s enough power in you to be of use, once you’re taught to use it. You want to learn?”

“Yes,” he said, without hesitating.

“Good,” she said. “Then you’re my apprentice now, as much as your mother’s. You’ll still learn herbs from your mother, so we’ll join our wagon to your group. But don’t expect the kisses and cuddles from me you get from her. For me, you’ll work hard and you’ll learn hard and maybe someday you’ll be worthy of the knowledge I’ll pass on to you. Say, Yes, Derie.”

“Yes, Derie,” he said.

“You’ve got a lot to learn,” she said. “Go with Charles. He’ll show you where you sleep.”

He hesitated, looked at his mother, because it hadn’t occurred to him that he would be leaving her. Suddenly, swiftly, Derie kicked hard at his leg. He yelped and jumped out of the way. Behind her he saw Charles—he of the bruised face—wince, unsurprised but not unsympathetic.

“Don’t ever make me ask you anything twice,” she said.

“Yes, Derie,” he said, and ran.

Excerpted from The Unwilling by Kelly Braffet. Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Braffet. Published by MIRA Books.

About the Author:

Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving and Josie & Jack. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. A lifelong reader of speculative fiction, the idea for The Unwilling originally came to her in college; twenty years later, it’s her first fantasy novel. Visit her at kellybraffet.com.

Have you read The Unwilling? What did you think of it?

Blog Tour Excerpt: The Home

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Title: The Home
Author: Karen Osman
Genre: Fiction, Thriller
Publisher: Aria
Release Date: September 4, 2018

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Synopsis:

Angela was just a baby when her mum left her for the last time, and a children’s home is no place to grow up. The home’s manager Ray takes the girls off to his ‘den’ in the garden and the littlies come back crying, and Ray’s wife Kath has special wooden spoons which she saves for beating any of the children who dare to misbehave.

So, when wealthy couple James and Rosemary come to choose a child to adopt, Angela is desperate to escape. But the scars of her childhood remain, and when Angela’s search for her birth mother Evelyn is successful, their reunion is no fairy tale. Soon strange and sinister events start to unfold, and Evelyn fears she may not survive her daughter’s return…

The Home is another devastating psychological thriller from the author of the bestselling The Good Mother.

Extract:

7

Monday 19 January 1970

Dear Diary,

Today is my birthday – I am nine years old. Nelly gave me her favourite marble as a present. It’s yellow like a daffodil and the only thing I own, apart from this diary. I need to hide it otherwise Peter might steal it. He has a huge collection, which he says he won in bets but everyone knows he steals. Apparently, he keeps his loot under his bed. We don’t get birthday presents but when I got back from school for tea Fat Franny gave me the biggest piece of chicken. When she’s not clipping me round the ear, she’s all right really. Better than Nasty Nora anyway – she didn’t even say Happy Birthday.

A.

Saturday 14 February 1970

Dear Diary,

Yesterday, we had to make Valentine’s Day cards at school. When Snapper asked who I was going to give it to, I said Nelly and everyone laughed and Peter started chanting lesbian! lesbian!at the top of his voice and the whole class joined in. Mrs Thistlethwaite had to snap her ruler on the desk so hard it broke. Nelly said to ignore them. Peter is going to be so sorry.

A.

Friday 27 February 1970

Dear Diary,

After school, me and Nelly went ice-skating on the lake in the park. We don’t have skates, we just slide on our feet. I saw Peter and his mates skating as well. As soon as I got close to him I pushed him and he went flying head first onto the ice. It was so funny! I couldn’t stop laughing but Nelly said I pushed him too hard and he could have really hurt himself. His friends had to pick him up off the ice and when he stood up he had blood on his forehead. Nelly said she doesn’t want to be friends with a bully. I don’t care – I bet he won’t call me a lesbian in front of the whole class again.

A.

Monday 2 March 1970

Dear Diary,

A horrid day – Nelly wasn’t talking to me and Peter had to stay home. When I got back after school, Nasty Nora was waiting for me. I knew I was in trouble. Somehow she must have found out what I did to Peter. Maybe Nelly told her. As soon as I got through the door, Nasty Nora grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into her office. She didn’t even ask me what had happened, just gave me the strap. I didn’t cry but that seemed to make her even angrier as she gave me a few extra welts. Luckily, there was a knock on the door and Nelly told Nasty Nora she was needed immediately as there was a fire in the kitchen. Nasty Nora ran out and Nelly after her. I was in so much pain I had to force myself to walk to the kitchen. There was a small fire in the sink. Later, Nelly told me that she had stolen Peter’s lighter from under his bed. I think Nelly’s my friend again – it’s not easy to get in the boys’ dorm – she must have stolen the key from Fat Franny. My bum hurts so much I’m going to have to sleep on my front for a week.

A.

Monday 30 March 1970

Dear Diary,

It’s Easter Monday. Nasty Nora and Fat Franny let us join in the Easter Egg hunt in the park. Nelly won a Cadbury’s Easter Egg and she shared it with me. After the hunt, we rolled down the hill – it was great fun. We are off school for one more week. In the morning, we have to do chores but in the afternoons me and Nelly sell lemonade. So far we’ve made five shillings. At the end of the week, we’re going to go to Woolworths to buy sweets – I can’t wait!

A.

Tuesday 7 April 1970

Dear Diary,

I hate Nasty Nora – when she found out we were selling lemonade, she took all our money and told us it was her payment for looking after us all the time. Nelly said that we can make a plan to get it back but I told Nelly that she will know it’s us if we take it. I had a better idea – I put itching powder in Nasty Nora’s bed and when she woke up the next morning she was red and sore all over and scratching like a cat! And the best part? She has no idea who did it! Nelly was worried but I told her she deserved it. That’ll teach Nasty Nora to steal!

A.

Tuesday 5 May 1970

Dear Diary,

Nothing interesting to write about today. After morning inspection, we went to school, did our chores and then played in the den until dark. One good thing that happened was that we had potatoes, meat, vegetables, AND custard for tea!

A.

Saturday 6 June 1970

Dear Diary,

Baby Carole was adopted this morning. We all waved her off. A man and a lady came to collect her. The lady smelt sweet, like candy floss. I tried to talk to her to tell her that Baby Carole would need an older sister to help take care of her but Fat Franny told me to scoot quick smart. Candy floss lady was wearing a red coat. When I grow up, I’m going to have ten coats in all the colours of the rainbow. Me and Nelly watched them leave from the window. I wonder if Baby Carole will get a bicycle like Nelly did?

A.

About the Author:

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Originally from the UK, Karen won the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Montegrappa Novel Writing Award 2016 with her crime-thriller novel, the bestselling The Good Mother. When she’s not writing novels, Karen is busy bringing up her two young children and running her communication business Travel Ink.

Follow Karen

Twitter: @KarenAuthor
Facebook: @KarenOsmanAuthor

Buy links

Kobo: http://bit.ly/2LmFsya
Amazon: https://amzn.to/2JwcDgS
iBooks: https://apple.co/2wi8ngo
Google Play: http://bit.ly/2Npi9of

Follow Aria 

Website: www.ariafiction.com
Twitter: @aria_fiction
Facebook: @ariafiction
Instagram: @ariafiction

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