Book Spotlight: Precious Bones by Mika Ashley Hollinger


Young Adult

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Meet ten-year-old Bones, whose playground is the Florida swamps, brimming with mystical witches, black bears, alligators and bobcats. Bones’ father, Nolay, a Miccosukee Indian, is smart and mischievous. Her Mama, practical as corn bread, can see straight into Bones’ soul.

It’s summer, and Bones is busy hunting and fishing with her best friend, Little Man. But then two Yankee real estate agents trespass on her family’s land, and Nolay scares them off with his gun. When a storm blows in and Bones and Little Man uncover something horrible at the edge of the Loo-chee swamp, the evidence of foul play points to Nolay. The only person that can help Nolay is Sheriff LeRoy, who’s as slow as pond water. Bones is determined to take matters into her own hands. If it takes a miracle, then a miracle is what she will deliver.


Praise for Precious Bones:

“…a tale that will already hold high interest for nature-loving readers longing for their own wild playgrounds.”—The Center for Children’s Books  

“The names of the characters alone make this a novel worth reading. How can you resist Bones, Little Man, Nolay, Soap Sally and Mr. Speed?!? Each character is as distinctive as the name they carry and the adventures they have.”—Random Acts of Reading  

“Precious Bones is a novel filled with adventure and mystery, as well as fascinating glimpses of its distinctive setting.”—Kevin Delecki, BookPage  

“I won’t be the last person to compare Mika Ashley-Hollinger’s amazing debut novel, Precious Bones to Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill A Mockingbird.”—Mindy McGinnis, author of Not a Drop to Drink  

“An intriguing debut, written lovingly to a way of life now lost.”—Booklist  

“It’s a rich stew, including hearty dollops of mystery and suspense.”—The Horn Book  

“Her voice is strong and lyrical, mixing regional syntax and dialect with lovely descriptions of the beauty she sees as she hunts, fishes, observes and explores in this mystical place.”—Kirkus Reviews  

“Like an age-appropriate To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s Bones’s interactions with well-developed, often-eccentric characters that shape this story.”—Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal  
“Mika Ashley-Hollinger’s debut book is full of suspense and surprise…I love Bones’ easy-going nature and adventurous spirit. She’s ready to rush off into battle to defend herself and those she loves, no matter the dangers. And I want her pet raccoon, too! “—Jack and Jill Magazine


About the Author

Mika Ashley-Hollinger was born and raised in the small community of Florida.  PRECIOUS BONES is written in tribute of a time and a way of life that no longer exist.

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Book Spotlight: A Thousand Shattered Moments by Connie Ann Michael


Contemporary Christian Military Romance/ Women’s Fiction
Date Published: Aug. 9th (print/POD)
Publisher: Anaiah Romance

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Sawyer and Raven finally see a future away from the war—if they can only get through this last deployment. But when the military separates them, Raven finds it impossible to protect her, and he worries her post traumatic stress disorder will return. Soon, Raven finds out PTSD is the least of his troubles.

Sawyer is assigned to a bomb removal unit being sent into the most dangerous area in Afghanistan where she’s taken and held captive for weeks. Expecting the worst, Sawyer is ready to die for her country. But when death doesn’t come, Sawyer turns her back on her faith. believing God has left her to deal with the aftermath of her capture alone.

Devastated at the news of Sawyer’s disappearance, Raven’s commitment to her never falters, even when her injuries threaten to take her from him. To make matters worse, he’s being kept from his wife by an angry mother-in-law. Raven is determined to bring Sawyer back to him—But is it be too late? Unfaltering in his faith, Raven knows with God’s help, he will prove his love to Sawyer.

EXCERPT
© 2016 Connie Ann Michael

CHAPTER ONE

Sawyer wiped a hand across her forehead, interrupting the drips of sweat heading toward her chin. She settled into a shady spot on the side of the metal structure of the hospital she was currently assigned to in Qatar, Afghanistan. Sawyer balanced her laptop on her knees. Glancing down at her watch, she opened the case and logged on. Raven was supposed to be back from his patrol tonight, and they were going to attempt to video chat. Camp Grady was one of the best set ups in Afghanistan and provided consistent climate control within the tents but lacked the privacy she wanted to talk to her husband. She laughed to herself. She still couldn’t believe Raven was her husband.
“Hey babe,” Raven’s voice broke through the quiet of her hiding spot.

Sawyer pushed a few buttons to get the screen to show the face of the man she loved. His big smile came through at the same time she assumed her face appeared on Raven’s screen.

“Hey babe,” he said again with a sigh.

Sawyer reached out and ran her fingers down the screen, caressing his cheek.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yeah. I can.” Sawyer swallowed down the lump in her throat. “Don’t call me babe. I’m Navy.” Sawyer and Raven had gone round and round on her status as a Navy Corpsman with the Marines. Now it was a topic of levity.

“Not when it’s you and me, babe. You’re not Navy, you’re my wife.” Raven gave her a sad smile.

“You look tired.” Raven’s eyes were shadowed with fatigue, and the lines around his mouth seemed deeper.

Raven nodded. “You look beautiful.”

“I appreciate your ability to lie.”

Raven rubbed at his eyes then gave her a small smile.

“Just got back?” she asked.

Raven closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the screen. “I miss you so much.”

Sawyer wiped a tear that escaped and cleared her throat. “I miss you, too.”

Raven glanced to the side then sat back up and resumed a comfortable slouch in the chair he was sitting in. The torso of another soldier passed behind him on the screen.

“Where are you?” Sawyer shifted on the sand, getting more comfortable. If he was in the Coms center it would explain his quick change of posture. After the past few weeks of silence, being able to truly share their feelings would be difficult.

Raven glanced over his shoulder. “Coms. The internet doesn’t work anywhere else. I can’t guarantee I’ll be with you for long. Things have been worse than normal lately.”

Raven had been redeployed to Camp Dietz, the base where they’d originally met. Raven kicking her out of his unit and the inconvenience of marrying her commanding officer made it impossible to be redeployed together. But at least they were both in Afghanistan, even if they were hundreds of miles apart with bad internet.

“So, what have you been up to?” Raven glanced backward again. Suddenly a bottle of water appeared over his shoulder. “Thanks,” he told the disembodied hand before Raven’s right hand man, Thommy pushed into view.

“Hey, Doogie. Good to see you.” Thommy smiled into the screen.

“Hey.” Thommy had been with them in Dietz and after the mess they went through during their last deployment, the three of them had become close friends.

“Chief telling you about the mess we got ourselves into?” Thommy continued.

Raven punched him in the arm, and after a mumbled conversation, Thommy disappeared.

“You got into trouble?” Raven’s unit was supposed to find trouble. That was their job. They were sent in to find the worst of the worst and eliminate them.

“How are you?” Raven’s expression cleared as he put on his game face and leaned forward, plainly ignoring her inquiry.

Sawyer sighed. He’d been her commanding officer, and she knew that until he was ready, there was no getting information out of him. She pulled the computer closer. “I miss you.”

Raven rubbed the short hair over his ears. He had only recently arrived at Dietz and was almost immediately sent out on a mission. Sawyer had been deployed two months before him. Three weeks after their wedding.

“You doing okay? Staying on base? Not heading out with any teams?” Raven had made her promise to do her best to stay on the base and out of combat, but she was a corpsman and changing her job title to nurse wasn’t going well. Sawyer had suffered a tough bit of PTSD after her last deployment. The guard assigned to her while on her last mission had become a close friend and when he stepped on an IED and blew up in front of her, things got rough. Raven had helped but more so the pastor they had been seeing had allowed her to move forward and ultimately redeploy. Something Raven was not happy about.

“I’ve stayed on base,” she started.

“You’re going out, aren’t you?” His voice was tight. Whereas he had mastered the ability to hide his emotions, Sawyer was an open book when it came to him.

“You do. You just got back.” It was a weak argument but a valid one. It was also the only argument she’d come up with when she’d prepared for this conversation in her head.

“That really isn’t the point. I didn’t pull a gun on my neighbor after I got stateside. You need to take it slow.”

“Raven,” was all she got out before he nailed her with one of his famous cold-as-ice stares.

Sawyer took a breath and tried to approach the conversation calmly. She knew he worried and although bringing up her past wasn’t exactly fair, she knew her actions after her last trip home were hard to forget. “I’m doing fine. But this is my job, and until I fulfill my time, I have to do it. I’ll be careful. I always am, just like I need you to be.”

“I know, baby. I know. But it makes me feel better if I at least ask you to try and be careful.”

Sawyer looked at the new lines appearing around Raven’s eyes. He was always so concerned for his men’s safety. Adding her to that worry was taking a toll on him.

“I’ve been able to stay close for the last couple of weeks.” She reached out and touched the screen again. Raven placed his fingers against hers.

“I know.”

The screen flickered, and Sawyer knew she was going to lose him soon. “I love you, Moses.”

“I love you, too, Emme.” Raven kissed his fingers and touched the screen again. Sawyer did the same.

Raven and Sawyer sat silently, staring at a grainy picture on a dusty computer screen. Their time together had been so short. Their marriage one of long distance conversations behind barracks and sweating in poorly air conditioned tech centers.

“Have you talked to your mom?” Raven’s voice was quiet.

Sawyer closed her eyes and shook her head. “No.”

“Why?”

Sawyer looked into the deep brown eyes that veiled so many emotions and knew Raven was hurt by her not telling her mom she had gotten married.

“Are you ashamed? Embarrassed?” he started.

“Why would I be either of those?”

“Regretful?” he added.

“Are you?” she snapped back.

“Me?” Raven snorted a laugh. “You’re my heart. You’re my life, Emme. I want to shout from the roof tops how much I love you. And I did. I told my family. The difference is they don’t care, yours will. Why won’t you tell your mom?”

“I.” She paused. “I have always had a strained relationship with her. I want to be able to tell her with you there. I don’t want to do it on my own.”

“You need back up.”

Sawyer smiled, and he winked. “Yeah. I guess I do. It’s harder to tell me I made a mistake if the infamous Sergeant Ravenscar is standing beside me.”

“I’m a mistake?”

“No. Never. She just thinks anything I do that wasn’t her idea is a mistake. I want you with me so she can see how you could never be a mistake.”

“Then I shall stand by you, Mrs. Sergeant Ravenscar.”

“It’s still Sawyer,” she corrected him.

“Not for long. The paperwork should be through soon. The Navy just likes to do things slow. Now if you were a Marine…”

“So now I’m not a Marine?” she teased back.

Raven’s jovial mood subsided, and he looked to the side, something or someone was talking to him just to the right of the screen.

When he looked back, the expression on his face made it clear he was getting a directive to get off the computer. “I got assigned to an EOD Convoy.” Sawyer couldn’t let him go without knowing as many details of her mission as she could give him. They had promised to tell as much as they could so they could pray for each other’s safety, and she needed as much help as she could get to keep her head out in the field.

The curtain of a non-emotional Marine dropped over Raven’s face as he kept his emotions in check. “An Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team? Why do they need a corpsman? Don’t they sit in the trucks and play with robots?”

Sawyer laughed. The men on the EOD teams spent a lot of time playing with little robotic machines whose job was to disarm IED’s. Improvised Explosive Devises were the number one killers in this war with over fifteen thousand people having been killed in the last year. The team’s job was to go out and clean routes so the Army or Marines could move forward without fear of blowing up. The problem was the insurgents could replace bombs faster than the team could find them, so often times they ended up running over bombs in areas they thought they had just cleaned.

“Sergeant Holloway, he’s the commanding officer, asked me to come.” She shrugged. “Told me I was coming.”

“Do you know where?” Raven wiped at something on his side of the screen.

Sawyer knew Raven was doing his best not to explode at the prospect of her being out with a bomb patrol. Which was another reason she was thankful she couldn’t tell him where exactly she was going.

“You can’t tell me where you’re going?” he asked.

“No.”

“I’ll tell you where I’m going if you tell me,” he teased, his commanding officer façade slipping a little.

“All I was told is we are headed to Gor Tepa on a route referred to only as Route Z.”

“That sounds safe.”

“I’ll be fine,” was all she got out before the computer fizzled, and Raven disappeared into the blackness of the screen.

Sawyer needed to see Raven’s face and looked forward to the video chat sessions, but more often than not the internet connection failed, and they were cut off without closure, leaving her feeling uncomfortable walking away. Conversations always left hanging. Words left unspoken.

Sawyer snapped the laptop closed, collected her things and headed back to the bunk she shared with a nurse. They were on opposite shifts most of the time so they rarely slept in the room at the same time. Storing her laptop in a box sworn to keep the sand out but lacking the actual ability to do so, Sawyer sat on the edge of her bed and waited for the sense of unfinished words to subside.

A courtesy knock came just before the door swung open and Petty Officer 2nd Class Omar stuck his head in. “We’re meeting in the mess hall for a briefing in five.”

“Roger that.”

Sawyer barely saw the man’s face before Omar closed the door behind him. With a sigh, she got out the ammo box where she kept her personal possessions. Inside were the paper cranes Raven made her with messages of love as well as candy and the tiny heart given to her by Tahk, her guard who had been killed during her last tour. Sawyer tucked them into her pockets as reminders that they were always with her and headed to the mess hall.

The men from EOD Platoon 432 had settled in long green lines at the tables that set parallel to each other. Sawyer had avoided making any close friends on the teams. She hadn’t been assigned a guard this time around and was frustrated about the barrier it caused between the men and her. Tahk allowed an access point to the team that was difficult to find without a senior team member on her side. Sawyer tried to tell herself it was easier if she kept her feelings in check and developing relationships made the inevitability of war that much more difficult. But keeping to herself was hard, and life with this team was lonely. Sawyer hung in the back and leaned against a wall to listen to the plan—alone.

SSG Halloway stepped up to the front of the room, waving a hand until the men quieted. “Our orders came in. We will be taking three Buffalos out with full teams.”

The Buffalos were six wheeled, mine resistant, ambush protected, armored vehicles. All the wheels and the centerline were mine resistant. The bottom of the truck was fitted with a ‘V’ shaped chassis that was supposed to keep the force of a blast away from the occupants. Each truck was fitted with a large, articulated arm used for ordinance disposal. Plainly speaking, it got rid of bombs.

“The Afghanistan National Army is going to be riding in the sweeper truck.” He pointed to a few of the men. “You won’t be taking WALL-E with you. We’ll pack them in the lead and second truck.”

WALL-E was the name the men gave the Cobham tEODor, the Navy’s technical term for a robot they used for bomb clearing. Each truck carried at least one when they went out on sweeper missions.

There were some groans from the team having to ride with the ANA. None of the men really enjoyed being paired with a group that was supposed to be taking the lead on this war but most of the time were a bunch of clowns with guns.

Halloway waited for the group to quiet down before continuing. “The Army is going to attempt to take over a town known for heavy Taliban activity, and they need the route cleared. Route Z is the heaviest bombed road in Afghanistan. There is a good chance as soon as we get the bombs off the road and past them there will be guys going in and replacing them. It’s going to be a tight mission. All eyes need to be watching and ready. We don’t want to get blown up, and we don’t want the Army coming in on hot soil after we’ve cleared it.”

Sawyer fidgeted with the zipper on her digis. When she avoided telling Raven where they were going, she hadn’t been trying to be elusive. The people of this culture didn’t name things. The military had spent the majority of their time in the country making maps trying to give the teams some direction as to where they had been and where they were going. However, Route Z seemed as scary as the name implied.

“Doogie.” Halloway nodded toward where Sawyer stood. The men turned to look in her direction, and she lifted her hand in a half salute. Sawyer had been given the nickname Doogie during her last deployment. It was an honor to be given a nickname by the Marines, but the majority of the time the nickname wasn’t meant to be nice. Hers’ was in reference to the young age when she had joined up. “She’s our corpsman. She’ll be watching out for us and the Army if needed.”

The men nodded back at her then shifted around to listen to the rest of the briefing. Sawyer had been impressed with Raven’s unit. There were some incredibly brave individuals serving under him. But this new group of men took service to a new level. The EOD’s were the ultimate bomb squad. They were trained to disarm not only explosive devices but to neutralize chemical threats and even nuclear weapons. The Navy Explosive Techs were trained to perform some of the most harrowing, dangerous work in order to keep others safe. And Sawyer was going out with them. If injuries occurred, they would be severe and most likely deadly. The pressure of her task sat heavy on her shoulders.

“We’re pulling out at zero eight hundred. Dismissed.” They had approximately thirty minutes to pull themselves together and meet on the Buffalos.

Sawyer only needed fifteen. She had learned through her first deployment to always be ready. Taking long enough to gather her ruck, a gun, and email Raven to tell him she loved him, Sawyer was the first to arrive at the large armored truck that would be her ride down the deadliest road in Afghanistan.


About the Author



Connie Michael began her writing career after her two boys grew up and didn’t want to hang out with their mom anymore.  A graduate of Washington State University Connie has been a teacher for twenty-five years. Specializing in Bilingual Education she recently left her home state of Washington to begin an adventure with her best friend and husband in Montana. Currently a fifth grade teacher on the Crow Reservation, Connie can be found biking, hiking, kayaking, or just hanging out with her two dogs.



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Book Spotlight: A Powerful Voice by Penelope Powell


Contemporary Christian Romance/ Women’s Fiction
Date Published: Jun 10th (digital) / Aug. 9th (print/POD)
Publisher: Anaiah Romance

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Gloria Fielder is trying her best to live with sincere faith, but regret for a past decision makes it difficult to live with herself.
Justin Case knows first-hand the consequences of bad choices, but he doesn’t believe in burying past mistakes. He openly shares his testimony with the purpose of showing there is hope and freedom for those who come to Christ.
Justin is the new worship leader for the church service Gloria attends, and he also leads a new Bible study she knows will help her. To complicate matters, once Justin becomes aware of Gloria’s struggle, he seems intent on drawing her out of her self-imposed shell of guilt and regret. If she trusts him with her secret and her heart, will their friendship evolve into something more, or will it simply be her undoing?


Excerpt

© 2016 Penelope Powell
Chapter One
Time heals all wounds…unless you deserve to suffer.
When the thought from her internal mantra struck, Gloria Fielder froze mid-step. As if punctuating the accusation, an icy wind howled, the force of it wrenching the glass door from her grasp and slamming it against the stopper.
“A few more minutes and you would’ve missed us entirely.”
Gloria looked up into the unsmiling face of a rail-thin woman standing sentinel over a group of children. Gloria assumed she was the children’s director, as they were all dressed in the festive colors of Christmas, their bright reds and deep greens reminding her of the candlelight service in progress.
She hesitated, her gaze shifting to the plaster nativity figures less than ten feet away, the babe in particular so…lifelike. Would it be better to leave and apologize later for having missed the program?
“Could you shut the door please? It’s hard to keep everyone’s attention while a draft is blowing through, and it’s almost time for us to begin.” Seeming to barely hang on to her patience, the director’s smile was as tight as her collar.
Being late was bad enough, but being made to feel like she was an annoying interruption was well…worse. Gloria shifted to close the door.
After an inquisitive glance toward Gloria, a chubby boy with flushed cheeks pulled on the director’s sleeve. “Mrs. Parker, when do we get our candles?”
“Patience, Tommy. We need to wait for the lady to go inside the auditorium, don’t we?”
Glancing from the boy to Mrs. Parker, Gloria apologized.
“That’s all right. We’re happy to wait for you to get settled.” Mrs. Parker’s smile stretched.
Gloria glanced back toward the woman, wondering if she meant what she said. She’d grown up in a house where a smile often held duplicity. Committed to stay, she hurried toward the partition crammed with winter coats. She unfurled the red scarf from her neck, then squished it and her coat into the mix.
Hushed giggles drew her gaze back to the director, who was busy giving each child a candle with detailed instructions. Everything about them seemed to contrast her. Was it just last year she wore red, putting on a good front? She wasn’t interested in being that person anymore. The clingy dress and all it represented was exiled to the corner of her closet. Proof she was different.
The past few weeks had been particularly hard. When something like seeing the babe in the manger shook her confidence instead of giving her hope, she questioned her faith as a believer in Christ. The possibility of seeing someone at this service she’d rather avoid tightened her chest with further worry.
“Ma’am, they’re waiting for us to start.” Apparently losing her patience, Mrs. Parker nodded toward the doors going into the auditorium.
Gloria tamped down her misgivings, straightened her shoulders, and walked toward the sanctuary. As she edged around the children to reach for one of the doors, a little girl dressed in an evergreen velvet dress took a candle from a basket and offered it to her.
“Thank you.” Gloria smiled.
The girl’s pink lips curved in reply.
Suddenly, blinking back the unwelcome pressure of tears, she turned and eased through the doors. Assailed by the scent of melting wax and pine, she waited for her eyesight to adjust to the soft glow of dimmed lighting, giving her a chance to scan the room for empty seats.
Soon an usher stood next to her, his face brightening when he smiled. “Is anyone joining you?” His generous teeth gleamed in the darkness.
Just me. She shook her head.
He motioned for her to follow him, then pointed to some empty chairs. As she made a beeline for them, his parting greeting followed. “Merry Christmas.”
Gloria glanced over her shoulder and forced a smile. She wanted to be merry. Wanted to simply feel peace. Wanted a reprieve from the recording in her head. Some days, the indictment playing over and over—tightening the tendrils of regret—putting her back on the treadmill of if-only. Making forgetting impossible.
If time was linear, and the passing of it promised things would get easier, then why hadn’t the grip of shame and sorrow weakened?
She settled into a chair as the children from the lobby entered and dispersed down the center aisle, the sound of their voices rising as they moved toward the front, their song offering her a distraction from her turmoil. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and tried to escape into the words.
Joy to the World. A feeling she had yet to muster.
After several carols and a reenactment of the birth of Christ, the pastor walked up on the stage.
Bobby Jordan had thinning gray hair, a solid middle-aged build, and the demeanor and voice of an authoritative grandfather. But that was her opinion now that she knew him. Their first meeting was at her office. His friendly and forthright manner reminded her of the old Southern gentlemen at home. He explained he was a pastor hoping to refer church members who were house hunting, said a friend had recommended her.
Her peace of mind wavered at the memory. Fortunately, the uncomfortable connection led to providential results. If she had not been going through such a rough time, and if Bobby had not sought her out, she might never have begun a relationship with Christ. If only she could find a way to reconcile how the two connected without all the bad stuff. She rubbed her forehead.
“Thank you children, you may join your parents,” Bobby said.
Gloria glanced up as Bobby laid a hand on the shoulder of a little boy after dismissing the others to finds their seats.
“This is Johnny, one of our shepherds in tonight’s program. He’s seven. I asked Johnny a question earlier, and I wanted you to hear his response.” Bobby crouched down. “Johnny, what’s Christmas all about?” He tilted a microphone toward Johnny.
“Pweth-sents.” The boy turned toward the audience and smiled, the gap in his front teeth sparking chuckles from the crowd.
“What’s so great about presents?”
“They’we fwee.”
Bobby ruffled Johnny’s hair and told him to join his parents. When the laughter trickling through the congregation died down, Bobby stood at the edge of the platform. “Each Christmas, we decorate our homes with nativity scenes and our Christmas trees with lights.”
Gloria swallowed, the nativity from the lobby edging back into her thoughts.
“We send cards, sing carols, and we exchange gifts.” Eyes down, Bobby paused. “I agree with Johnny. Big or small, presents are special, but are they truly free? Certainly, they’re free to the recipients, but to the giver there is always a cost.” Bobby raised his arms. “But to each one of us, grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Paul wrote this to the Ephesians. God’s gift of grace. Undeserved favor for us.”
Undeserved. That was certainly her. She’d never measured up to expectations, which was one of the reasons why she worked so hard at her job.
“As recipients, God’s gift of grace costs us nothing because Jesus paid for it. He gave his life, so we might receive forgiveness. Receive life. In this season of giving, in addition to the wrapped packages we place under our trees, let’s give grace to one another. Offer forgiveness when needed, even underserved.” Then Bobby prayed.
As before, the children assembled across the front. Once their candles were lit, they disbursed down each aisle, lighting the candles of people sitting on the end as they went. Music played in the background.
Eyes closed, Gloria focused on Bobby’s words. She prayed the message would wash over her. Because there was hope in knowing Christ had already forgiven her. And she could do the same.
“Excuse me.”
Startled from someone’s touch, Gloria slapped a hand to her chest.
A man barely visible, given the darkness and shadows cast by candlelight, leaned closer. “Sorry to disturb you, but I thought you might want to light your candle.” Highlighting his explanation, he lifted his candle. For one brief moment, a striking, masculine face with eyes so dark they glittered like pools in moonlight stared back at her.
She swallowed, her heart still pounding from having been disturbed. “Sorry.” She fumbled for the candle amongst her things. Finding it, she held it toward him and tilted her wick toward his flame. A cool, woodsy scent wafted toward her, reminiscent of an autumn breeze. She inhaled the refreshing smell and relaxed a bit.
When her candle was lit, the flare illuminated his face once more. He looked up and caught her staring. Embarrassed, she turned away. “Thanks.”
“No problem.”
When the lights came up, she hit the aisle, determined to get through the lobby then home. The last thing she wanted to do was linger. Not that she didn’t enjoy talking with people afterward, but tonight she felt fragile.



About the Author


Though her roots are buried deep in the hills of Middle Tennessee, she now lives in Indiana with her family and serves in her local church. She loves to entertain, give life to old things, antiquing, reading and of course writing.
Like the things we experience, I believe good Christian fiction can inspire and change someone’s perspective, and hopefully point them to Christ.

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Book Spotlight: The Devil's Analyst by Dennis Frahmann


Mystery, Thriller, Crime 
Date Published:  08/11/2016

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Danny Lahti had it all: fame, fortune, friends, love - and an obsessed stalker.
Obsession can be a powerful curse. What happens when you think your world is perfect, but someone behind the scenes is determined to test you in every way possible? As the clock ticks toward the year 2000, Danny's world starts unraveling without explanation. An unknown hacker unleashes a digital attach on his Internet company just months before its public debut. A prowler attempts to break into his historic mansion which houses, according to Hollywood rumor, secret vaults. A long-time friend goes missing. Is it all coincidence, or are these just the first feats by a crazed admirer determined to force the truth from Danny?
And what is the truth? The complicated days that follow force Danny to have another look at his own relationships, misdeeds, and damaged past. But will he ever learn the lesson that will satisfy the devil who taunts him?


Excerpt

C  H A  P  T  E  R    O N E 

Midnight 
Twenty minutes to midnight, and the ice on the frozen lake outside cracked. The loud reverberations of winter echoed through the night and invaded Danny Lahti’s peace.
Danny was prepared to let time  move  forward  in   whatever incremental way  it chose. At that moment . . . sitting on a sofa  in  an enormous  room  near  midnight  .  .  .  huddled  within  a  century-old hunting lodge  of a long-dead lumber tycoon . . . on  the shoreline of a lake  nearly forgotten in  the isolated woods of  northern Wisconsin, Danny Lahti was not concerned about the potential for a technological apocalypse as time turned to the year  2000.
But  he  did   feel   on   the  brink. Something was   about to  happen. Things should change;  they needed to change. He  couldn’t  really say why.   Danny never  felt he  was   the   introspective  type.  But he   had always felt connected to a larger universe, one  in  which he  received premonitions of what was to come.
The  end  of the century. Or maybe the start of a new  millennium. It depended on  the pundit. But  computers only  knew what they were programmed to  know, and   they weren’t  programmed to  deal   with changing from 1999  to 2000.  Maybe early computer  scientists never thought about a century starting anew. December 31, 1999  could prove an  existential threat. They called it “Y2K.” Who knows, maybe every generation deserved its opportunity to restart the clock.
For   Danny,  his   past  was   too  painful,  but   the  future  felt  too uncertain. In a way,  his life could be the snowdrift-covered lawns that surrounded  this house. On  the surface, the drifts were unblemished and  glistening in the weak  moonlight. But beneath their surface, under the  shapeless accumulated flakes,  were the  remains of years of living. If Danny had  the time and  the tools and  the  energy, he  could shovel his  way  into discovering the   dead flowerbeds, the   abandoned lawn furniture, and  the  century’s worth of trails across the  grounds. But who could be  bothered?  Eventually, the warm sun  of  spring would surely melt the snow. Just wait. The  past would be exposed.
Danny had  always been the kind  of person willing to wait. When he was only  twelve, his mother committed suicide and  he found her dead body. He  waited then,  always expecting someone  would eventually arrive  to  explain  what  had   happened  and   why.   When  his   father withdrew   into   a   hermit-like   life    that   barely  acknowledged  his adolescent son’s existence, Danny still waited. Someone would surely make his  father forget his  dead wife  and  remember his  child. He  was still waiting.
And  when Josh  came into his  life,  promising an  escape from these cold  woods into the warm, loving life  of the Los  Angeles sun,  Danny followed and  waited for Josh’s direction.
He  waited. He  always had.  Perhaps he  always would. It was  his nature not to rebel and  not to question, to try to be good  and  not rock the   boat.   A  new   year, a  new   century, a  new   millennium, not even “Y2K” could change that. Because Danny Lahti had  never been able  to find  the  energy to  grab the  reins of his  own  life. And  he  didn’t intend to start now.  And  yet something was changing. He felt it.
The  ice cracked again.  Nineteen minutes to midnight. 




Dennis Frahmann is a former journalist and marketer,who now resides in Cambria, CA. He is the author of two other novels: Tales from the Loon Town Cafe and The Finnish Girl.

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Book Spotlight: Love to Win by Lisa Ricard Claro



Fireflies Series, Book Three
Contemporary Romance
Date Published: July 30, 2016
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She hates to lose…
Competitive barista Brenna Kinkaid loves a challenge, and she’ll do whatever it takes to win, especially when it comes to her nemesis, Dante Caravicci. But when forced to team up to save their best friends’ wedding, Brenna recognizes that Dante might just be her ultimate win.
He plays to win…
Restaurateur Dante Caravicci won’t quit anything until he can claim success. He’s bided his time, but he’s used to taking big risks and surviving, so he figures he’s got nothing to lose by playing for Brenna.
Hearts at risk…
These two fall fast, and it looks like a win-win—until a competition pits them head-to-head and one of them goes way too far. A nudge from an improbable source may be the only way these two competitors will ever admit that the only way to win is to lose their hearts.


Other Books in the Fireflies Series:

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Publisher: Black Opal Books
Published: June 2015

She can’t let go of her dead husband…
Maddie Kinkaid believes her late husband, Jack, gives her advice on everything from ordering a pizza to hiring a carpenter, so when she finds Caleb Walker’s business card on Jack’s desk, she’s convinced that he’s the guy to remodel her kitchen.
He can’t decide if she’s worth the risk…
Caleb is a single father, and protecting his young son means avoiding romantic entanglements. But there’s heat in every kitchen, and sparks ignite between Caleb and Maddie—until disaster strikes.
When Jack goes silent, Maddie’s guilt consumes her, and it looks as if she and Caleb will never find their happily-ever-after—at least, not without a little help from Jack…
LOVE BUILT TO LAST began as the award-winning short story Fireflies, and is now the first novel in the Fireflies series.




Excerpt

“Well, I like that,” Brenna said. “My own mother likes your cake better.”

Dante regarded her with amusement. “Not everything has to be a competition between us, does it? What difference does it make which of us bakes the better cake?”

“Or sautés the better shrimp?” Brenna said, remembering Dante’s shrimp dish from Thanksgiving that she, Rebecca, and Maddie had all deemed to be almost better than sex. Not that she’d tell Dante that. She blew out a tired sigh. “I’m sick of losing to you in the food department. I try to so hard to be creative, and you whip something up at the last minute that takes home the gold.”

“Is it really that big a deal?” He raised his brows.

Brenna stared at him a moment and made him laugh when she said, “Bet your ass! I hate coming in second on anything, especially to you. And say what you will—” She poked his chest with her finger for emphasis. “—but you’re just as competitive as I am.” He moved back a step and she poked him again. “You don’t like to lose at anything either.” One more poke. “You always do whatever you have to do to win.”

Dante’s eyes narrowed, but his lips curved. He stepped forward against the press of her finger, forcing her to step back—once, twice, thrice—and she sucked in a breath when her hips bumped against the counter. She reached behind her to grab the edge of the countertop, and her eyes widened when Dante rested his hands on either side of hers, hemming her in as he had done in the storeroom.

Brenna’s heart sped to triple speed. Dante leaned down and she parted her lips, in spite of herself, when his mouth stopped a mere breath away from hers, so close she swore she felt the radiating heat. A second passed, and another. His gaze dipped to her mouth. Brenna licked her lips and her eyes fluttered shut in anticipation, and then the stubble darkening his jaw tickled the skin of her cheek with the barest touch, and his warm breath against her ear made her shiver when he whispered, “You’re right. I’ll do whatever I have to do to win. You’d do well to remember that, sweetheart.”

He pressed his lips against the tender skin just below her earlobe and made her shiver again, then stepped back. Brenna stared at him, her mind whirling.

“It’s late. I’ll follow you home when you’re ready to go, make sure you get there safe,” he said. “And relax, I don’t expect to be invited in. I know you just want to be friends.”

Brenna still gripped the edges of the counter, her eyes wide and lips parted in surprise when he disappeared out to the porch.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Ricard Claro is a professional editor, award-winning author, and Pushcart Prize nominee with published articles and stories spanning multiple media. She resides in Georgia with her husband of more than three decades and counting, is mother to three (a ruggedly handsome son and two stunningly beautiful daughters—​Lisa might be a little biased), and dreams of one day living at the beach. Seriously dreams of it. As in, she’s already decorating her dream beach house. In addition to an array of sand dollars and seashells, she keeps a framed sign hanging in her office: Sandy Toes and Salty Kisses Welcome Here.
Lisa is also a lover of dogs and cats, and has a heart for rescues. This is why you will find a rescued pet companion in every one of her books. Sometimes they are part of the story line (Pirate the dog, in Love Built to Last), and sometimes they’re already ensconced in their forever home with one of Lisa’s characters (Pavarotti the cat, in Love to Win). As you read Lisa’s books, watch for the rescues!
While Lisa is a fan of storytelling in all genres, Romance is her favorite because she believes everyone deserves love and a happily-ever-after. But she adores a little mystery now and then, too, so keep an eye out for Lisa’s authorship of a whodunit one of these days soon.

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Book Spotligh & Giveaway: Hidden Deception by Coleen Helme



Mystery (cozy, psychic)
Date Published: August 12, 2016

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Just back from Paris, Shelby barely has time to get over her jet lag before she is right back in the thick of things. Uncle Joey, the local mob boss, needs her help to find out what his son is hiding from him. Detective Harris, AKA Dimples, has an unsolved homicide on his hands, along with a missing engagement ring. Shelby's husband, Chris, just got promoted to partner in his law firm, and she has yet to see his new office or meet his new secretary. Add to that the opportunity to purchase a beautiful home, and Shelby is racing from one thing to the next while trying to keep them all straight.
When a courier in Uncle Joey’s organization turns up dead, it’s up to Shelby and her mind-reading powers to find out who killed him and why. The house Shelby wants to buy has a few problems that go beyond the building code, and the murder she’s helping Dimples solve has ties to Chris’ law firm. Even using all of her skills, Shelby finds one hidden deception after another. And if she’s not careful, it might be the one she least expects that will kill her.



EXCERPT

Today began like any other Monday.
The routine of getting my kids off to school was just the same as it had always been, and I found it a little disconcerting to think that I’d just had the adventure of my life in Paris, and now it seemed like I’d never been gone.
We’d gotten home on Friday, so with the weekend to get over my jet-lag, there was no excuse for not going back to my everyday life. It would have been depressing except for the fact that I had something to look forward to. Just thinking about it sent a thrill of excitement through me.
My husband, Chris, had just made partner at his law firm. With that came a few other benefits, one of which was a big raise in pay. On the plane ride home from Paris, Chris had mentioned this to me, along with the news that the house I’d always admired from afar was for sale. Now, there was a real possibility we could afford it.
I’d had my eye on that house ever since we’d moved into the area. It had a certain enchantment about it that fueled my imagination. It was situated on a beautiful, stately, tree-lined street, and was built in the Old Victorian style. It even had a round turret on one side that spanned two floors, and another in the back. A wrap-around porch had recently been added, making it even more inviting.
It wasn’t a huge house, but big enough for our family, and I’d always thought it would be cool to live there. Even better, it was in our neighborhood and school district. So if we did buy it, our kids could stay in their schools and keep their friends. 
The only drawback I could see? People moved in and out a lot, so it might need some fixing up, especially the yard. But that also meant the price would be lower, so it could all work out in the end. Chris had called a realtor on Saturday, and I had an appointment to meet him there this afternoon.
This fit into my plans perfectly, since I needed to visit Thrasher Development this morning and have a talk with Uncle Joey. He was the local mob-boss and my employer. And he wasn’t even my real uncle. But since he knew my secret, I was more or less coerced into working for him. 
Recently, he’d sent his hit-man, Ramos, to look after me when I’d accompanied a federal agent to Paris on a routine trip. It had turned out to be a heck of a lot more than I’d bargained for. In fact, without Ramos’ help and protection, I’d be dead.
The last time I’d talked with Uncle Joey, he wasn’t too happy with me. And since he’d basically saved my life by sending Ramos… again, I owed him big-time, probably for as long as I lived. Or at least until my mind-reading abilities stopped. So far, that hadn’t happened. And deep inside, I hoped it never would. 
It had been a whole year since my life changed during a bank robbery at the grocery store while I was shopping for carrots. A bullet wound to my head had changed something in my brain, and now I could hear people’s thoughts. I could hardly believe how fast the time had gone since then. 
In fact, reading minds had become so much a part of my identity that I didn’t think I could ever go back to the person I was before. So, even though it might get me out of helping a mob-boss, and keep me out of trouble, and even keep me from getting killed, I’d hate to lose it. How crazy was that? 
On the other hand, Uncle Joey was getting older. He had to be over sixty-five. That meant he should retire at some point in the next few years. Maybe by then, he’d let me off the hook. Ha! Who was I kidding? Uncle Joey didn’t seem like the retiring type. He liked power way too much. And barring death, either his or mine, I didn’t think I’d ever be out from under his thumb. 
It also worried me a little that the circle of people who actually knew my secret had just widened to include French Inspector Gabriel Dumont. But since I’d helped save a chunk of Paris, he’d readily agreed to keep it to himself. 
So, including Uncle Joey, Ramos, my husband, Chris, and Detective Harris, whom I called Dimples, that still added up to only five people, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. Oh wait, there was one more… Kate.
How could I forget her? She was the main reason I got involved with Uncle Joey in the first place. As a new lawyer at Chris’ law firm, she’d set her sights on Chris, even though she knew he was happily married to me. In order to stop her, I’d threatened to expose her ties to the local mob-boss, Joe ‘The Knife’ Manetto, whom she called Uncle Joey. 
That’s when it all went wrong, and I had to tell Uncle Joey my secret in order to stay alive. Kate had since been banished to run Uncle Joey’s operations in Seattle, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t pop back up in my life at any time.
Just thinking about her brought a sick feeling to my stomach, but now that she was involved with Alec Passini and his shipping company, I hoped that kept her occupied. Still, I wouldn’t put it past her to ask for my help if she needed it. So, of all the people who knew my secret, Kate was the one I worried about the most. Good thing I had Uncle Joey on my side. Everyone else thought I had ‘premonitions,’ and I needed to make sure it stayed that way.
Now that I was back in the real world, it hit me that I had a lot to worry about, so to alleviate those worries, I decided to change my focus to the possibility of purchasing my dream home. That helped revive me and, with anticipation, I jumped into the shower to get ready for my day.
An hour later, I pulled into the parking garage of Thrasher Development and gathered the special gifts I’d purchased in Paris for Uncle Joey, his secretary and wife, Jackie, and Ramos. I was excited about the gifts I’d bought for Uncle Joey and Jackie, but more than a little nervous about the one I’d bought for Ramos. I mean, what could I possibly give to the man who’d rescued me from a bunch of crazy terrorists?
Not only that, but he’d stuck by my side when he could have easily been blown up. The little Eiffel Tower I’d gotten him seemed kind of silly, but it was also personal. The first time I’d seen it sparkle was the night he’d saved my life and took me there to help settle me down. Now, when I thought of the Eiffel Tower, it was always of that moment standing there with him. 
It was bad of me in so many ways, especially considering the kiss. Of course it wasn’t a personal kiss since Gabriel had kissed me too. It was kind of a French thing to celebrate not getting blown up; Joie de Vivre, and all that. 
Still, I had to admit that I’d liked it, and that I didn’t feel too guilty about it. That probably made me even more of a bad person, but it’s not like I’d ever do it again. I loved my husband more than I could say, and we had two great kids together. 
But Ramos was special to me too, and always would be. So giving him the Eiffel Tower was an okay thing to do, right? Still, maybe I should forget about it and just give him the extra chocolates instead. Then I wouldn’t have to worry that I’d crossed some sort of line.
“Babe.” 


About the Author

As the author of the Shelby Nichols Adventure Series, Colleen is often asked if Shelby Nichols is her alter-ego. “Definitely,” she says. “Shelby is the epitome of everything I wish I dared to be.” Known for her laugh since she was a kid, Colleen has always tried to find the humor in every situation and continues to enjoy writing about Shelby’s adventures. “I love getting Shelby into trouble…I just don’t always know how to get her out of it!” Colleen lives in the Rocky Mountains with her family. Besides writing, she loves a good book, biking, hiking, and playing board and card games with family and friends. She loves to connect with readers and admits that fans of the series keep her writing.


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Twitter: @ColleenHelme


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Teaser Tuesday: The Geisha with Green Eeyes by India Millar


Historical Romance
Release Date - August 16, 2016


By 1850, Japan had been closed to the outside world for centuries.  It was a secret, hidden world.  And deep within Edo (now Tokyo) was Yoshiwara − “The Floating World.”  The center of pleasure. And within Yoshiwara was the Hidden House. The place that only the very wealthiest could afford.  The place where the geisha were…special.

And in the Hidden House lived Midori No Me. Half Japanese, half foreign Barbarian, born captivity. She was trained to dedicate her life to serving the wealthiest men in Japan. Defiled at 13 when her virginity was sold to the highest bidder. Possessed by the greatest actor in the Kabuki theater.  Stolen by the most powerful Yakuza in Edo.

The geisha who escaped from the Floating World.

The Geisha with the Green Eyes.










EXCERPT



The birds on my roof

Fly away. Would that I

Could follow.

Carpi had collected me and taken me to the bathhouse earlier that afternoon. She had supervised critically as the maids poured hot water over me, soaped me from head to foot, and rinsed time and again until she was satisfied. Eventually, she had discarded her own kimono and gestured at me to climb into the bath with her, even grudgingly allowing me to help her climb down the rather slippery steps.
Both of us stood chin deep in the hot water. Within seconds, my skin had turned lobster red from the unrelenting heat. Carpi sighed luxuriantly, stretched, and turned to stare at me.
“Anything you need to know?”
I shook my head. In my stupidity, I had no idea what questions even to ask. What was there to know, I wondered? Auntie had already explained to me what was to happen. When my danna arrived, he would be taken to the bathhouse and would be bathed carefully by the maids. Once he was ready, he would proceed to the Hidden House itself and would be plied with sake by Auntie prior to the feast. Carpi, Kiku, and Masaki would enter the room with me. Naruko, still being a maiko, would follow later on her own. 
We would all bow to my danna and would sit at his command. Food would be brought in when he requested it. Masaki would probably be chosen to play the samisen. Kiku and Carpi would flirt politely with my danna. We would all eat and drink, at his signal.
At this stage, nothing would be expected of me except to sit and giggle at any witticism he might make. I could look at him with reverent adoration, of course, and if he wanted me to dance or play the samisen or sing, I could do so, but not unless he asked.
Either when Auntie thought the time was right or my danna became impatient for his money’s worth and made it clear that he wished us to be alone, Auntie would stand and she and the other girls would make their farewells. The maids would clear away the dishes and charcoal burners and bring in the bedding to change the room from a banqueting hall to a bedroom.
Then my mizuage would begin.
Although at least in principle we would be alone, I was well aware that Auntie would be outside the room, somewhere very close. She would certainly be able to hear everything. Knowing Auntie, I would guess that she would make sure that she could also see everything as well. I could only pray that she was alone and had not invited some favored patron to watch my deflowering. I would never know if she had, of course, but the thought made me feel sick.
Satisfied that we were clean, Carpi scrambled out of the bath, leaving me to follow. The maids dried us carefully, and then Carpi hustled me off to her room to attend to my makeup.
I was used to the thick, white makeup required of a maiko, but today’s was even more concealing than usual. I suppressed a hysterical giggle as I wondered if my danna would even recognize me underneath the coating.
Carpi sat me down on the matting and pursed her lips as she looked at the assortment of jars and bottles set out on the tatami.
“Sit still,” she commanded. I nodded, without thinking, and got a brisk slap from her left foot as a reward for daring to move.
I hated Carpi touching me anywhere, but especially on my face. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend it was Kiku, or Auntie, who was dabbing at my skin. It didn’t work, I still felt slightly sick. But I kept still, as instructed.
Carpi nodded at the bottle of camellia oil and the maid picked it up quickly, patting the oil on my face and neck and then rubbing it in gently. None of the incredibly expensive courtesan’s nightingale dung face cream for me! It was said – by those who could afford it – that the potions made from nightingale dung lightened and brightened the skin like nothing else could. I was grateful I wasn’t rich enough for it be used on me. The thought of rubbing unguent made from bird droppings into my skin did nothing for my queasy stomach. Satisfied that my skin was ready, Carpi grunted and the maid stepped back but hovered nearby, ready for Carpi’s commands.
Carpi leaned forward, a tiny bottle clasped between her finger and thumb. With the other fingers, she pried my eyelids wide apart. The bottle was tipped slowly toward my eye, and a single drop of thick liquid dripped out. It felt icy cold and stung. The action was repeated with my other eye. Within a minute, everything at any distance became blurred. I blinked.
“It’s a distillation made from a flower,” Carpi said briskly. “Don’t worry, it will wear off by morning. In the meantime, it makes your pupils look huge. I think it makes your eyes look even more green, if that’s possible.”
She sat back on her haunches and nodded in evident satisfaction. 
The pink undercoating came next. Carpi put that on herself, and I closed my eyes as I felt her touch, trying not to squirm. A white topcoat followed, brushed on quickly before it could set. For one insane moment, I thought about telling Carpi that I would do it myself, but my tongue refused to speak the words and I simply sat mute, suffering her touch.
I heard her grunt with satisfaction and I opened my lips and drew a deep breath.
Rouge followed, highlighting my cheeks. In spite of the fact that my eyes were tightly shut, Carpi snapped at me to keep them closed as she puffed white powder on my eyebrows and eyelids. My own eyebrows were hidden completely by the powder and I could feel Carpi’s breath on my face as she leaned forward to draw my new brows in place. Red paint first, then black over the top, with just the tiniest hint of red allowed to show through. 
“Open,” Carpi said, and I hurriedly opened my eyes, trying not to blink in the sudden light. With the tiniest of brushes, she outlined my eyes with red, which was – like my brows – then covered in black. 
“Pout.” In a second or two, my lips were bright red. Carpi sat back to consider her work and nodded. “You’ll do. You can still tell you’re a Barbarian, but then again I suppose that’s what your danna is paying for. Put your head back.”
I did as I was told and Carpi took up the large brush again to stroke the white paste over my throat and bosom, down as far as my undergarment. I turned automatically, praying that I was getting it right.
Finally, she gestured for me to turn around and painted me from my shoulders to my hairline at the nape of my neck, leaving only a strip of my own flesh showing down my spine. Japanese men find the nape of the neck to be especially erotic, often more so than a woman’s breasts, so this piece of painting had to be correct.
Finally satisfied, Carpi nodded at the maid to bring me a mirror. I stared into its depths wonderingly. Was this really me? Was this painted, anonymous doll that looked back at me from the mirror truly my own face? Fascinated, I reached up to touch my cheeks and got a sharp hiss from Carpi for my trouble.
“Don’t you dare! Do you really think I’ve gone to all that trouble for you to mess it up?”
I mumbled my apologies.
“Come on. Let’s get you dressed.”
I stood, naked and still pink from the heat of the bath, as Carpi shouted at the maids to get me properly dressed.
First, the tabi socks. I felt clumsy, and it took an age for the maid to get my big toe properly inserted in the divided sock. I remember laughing the first time I saw a Western sock and thinking it strange that there was no separate place for the big toe. Did foreign Barbarians not have a separate big toe, I wondered. But on that day I would have given a great deal for a pair of Western socks; they would have been so very much easier. Carpi tutted at my clumsiness, and I was suddenly all thumbs.
The maid helped me into the red-patterned undershirt and skirt and tied them around with a waist tie to keep them in place. A wide under sash followed. Then my lovely, silken kimono.
This was the first time I had seen it, and it was quite beautiful. Auntie had gone for simplicity – green silk with a subtle pattern of intricate embroidery in a slightly lighter shade. Whether the color choice was to enhance my eyes or was a play on my name, I had no idea. All I knew was that the kimono was by far the most beautiful thing I had ever owned. At that moment, I didn’t even care that I would spend the rest of my working life paying for it, and all the kimonos that were to follow. It was mine!
The maid slipped it around me, patting the right side under the left, and closing it off with another waist tie. An under sash followed, and then a wide obi that went around my waist twice with a knot tied at the back and the ends of the obi sash brought around to the front where they were tied off so tightly I had to fight to draw a deep breath.
And that was it. I was dressed. I was ready.
I looked at Carpi, desperate for her approval.
She rose and stretched lazily, walking around me. She pushed and tugged at the obi and tweaked my kimono at the neck. I stood stock still, trying not to show my distaste. Finally, to my relief, she shrugged.
“Your breasts are still far too big, even in the kimono.” I looked down at myself. She was right, they were. “And we can’t do anything at all about you being so tall. No, don’t slump. It just makes your breasts look even bigger. Your nose is too big, as well. And as for your eyes! Never mind. Your danna knows what he’s getting.”
From anybody else, the words would have been heartbreakingly rude, but from Carpi, they were simply matter of fact. No one, of course, would ever have dared make the same sort of comment to her. As if she had read my mind, she added, “We are all the same, here in the Hidden House. All of us are wrong.”
From Carpi, it was almost a comfort.
The feast was spread out on the tatami mats. The feast must have cost my danna a huge amount, not to mention the fee for me, of course. The matting was full and overflowing with dishes, grilled squid, seaweed, fruit, noodles of every description, beef, and – dominating everything – a huge platter of fugu fish, sliced so thinly that when it was picked up, you could see right through it. Teruki-san gestured at me munificently and I picked up a slice of the fish, bowing my head in gratitude for his generosity, although really I could never see a great deal in the stuff. It could, of course, kill you if it had not been prepared very well, but the only thing it did to me was to make my lips slightly numb.
I ate as slowly as I could, as if by doing so I could put off the moment when the food would be finished and Teruki-san decided the time had come to get his money’s worth. 
The screens had been pushed back to make a large, twelve-mat room so that there was plenty of space for all of us. Auntie had taken her place at the side of my danna and was leaning toward him, chuckling richly at some witticism he had made. 
I was flanked on each side by Carpi and Kiku, both dressed in their best kimonos and obi. As Teruki-san glanced at Kiku, she shook out her fan and retreated behind it, tittering politely. Even though Kiku’s eyes were almost hidden in folds of fat, they really were remarkably beautiful, perfectly almond-shaped and gleaming with a light that seemed to come from some source that only Kiku was aware of. Teruki-san beamed at her and shook his finger roguishly. I wondered how much sake he had drunk before he had come to us; already he was making inroads on his second flask, and even as I thought about it he glanced at his cup and held it out. Masaki reached out and plucked the flask from the charcoal burner to refill it for him. A maid immediately placed another flask into another warming vessel to be sure it would be ready when he needed it. With great dignity, Teruki-san gestured at Masaki to fill a cup for me. 
Taking his gesture as a signal, Auntie curled her fingers at me urgently, flicking me forward with her fingers. My legs were trembling so hard I knew that standing would be beyond my power, and so I shuffled forward on my knees, my head tucked down. Teruki-san seemed to like this, as he applauded and nodded.
As I approached, Masaki turned to Teruki-san and bowed, presenting the cup she had filled for me to him. With what I guessed was drunken dignity, he grasped the cup and took three deliberate, rather noisy sips. Auntie smiled widely. She leaned forward and took the cup from him, presenting it to me. In my turn, I took three careful sips, which emptied the cup.
Unsure what to do next, I simply remained crouching, clutching the cup in my fingers. It seemed to me that silence fell, and that everybody was staring at me. 
I will not speak of what followed again.
It is done, and what is done can never be undone, no more than time can be turned back. I will never be a maiko again. Never an innocent. But at least I will never have to suffer another mizuage.






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