Thursday, July 31, 2014

Interview with author Chris Culver - Nine Years Gone

I love interviewing and learning about new to me authors and while I was visiting a fellow blogger one day I happened upon her post about an eire new mystery, when I read further on I learned that this novel would definitely fit my reading tastes and to my surprise realized that this New York Times bestselling author lived in my hometown. So I knew I had to get him on the forum.
I hope you enjoy our chat!
I'm pleased to introduce Chris Culver!!

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  • BN ID: 2940149736720
  • Publisher: TMG Electronic Self Publishing Services
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014


Nine years ago, Steve Hale saved the love of his life from her abusive and very powerful stepfather by helping her disappear and framing him for her murder. Today, that stepfather is dead, executed by the state of Missouri for a crime he didn’t commit, and Steve has a loving wife, a little girl who depends on him, a home, a career – everything he ever wanted and believed he could never have. He also has a new voice mail from a woman the rest of the world believes is dead. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Interview with author Anouska Knight-Since You've Been Gone

Please welcome debut author Anouska Knight who is on the blog today chatting about her just released in the US novel Since You've Been Gone and spilling some personal beans as well. You who know me know I LOVE to introduce new just out of the gate authors and I'm so happy to introduce you to this interesting, lovely lady. Plus it doesn't hurt that she writes for my favorite publisher.
Anouska (I just love that name) take   it   away!

  • ISBN-13: 9780373779284
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 7/29/2014
  • Pages: 320


How do you learn to love again?
In one tragic moment, Holly Jefferson's life as she knew it changed forever. Now—to the external world, at least—she's finally getting back on her feet, running her bakery, Cake. But inside, she's still going through the motions befitting a twenty-seven-year-old widow.

Read an Excerpt:

It was supposed to be a day off. He'd promised me he wouldn't be gone long. He just needed to check that the lads were behaving themselves, staying safe; he didn't want to be writing up any more incidents of severed anythings for a while, and that meant keeping on top of them. I'd promised to make his favourite—lemon-and-basil linguine—and he'd promised to be home on time, before it had chance to spoil.
It didn't look appetizing now anyway. I looked down at the cool congealed mess of pasta I'd been pushing around the plate in front of me and tried not to feel abandoned. I automatically set my knife and fork neatly on top, handles parallel in the four o'clock position as was appropriate for a meal finished, and wondered again why the hell I bothered.
Table manners were one of those ironies, superfluous to those who for the most part ate with company who really didn't care whether elbows were on the table or not.
My mother, Pattie, had drilled them into us when we were kids, and would be less than impressed to see her little girl roughing it out over the breakfast bar instead of using any one of the twelve redundant dining chairs. Catching wind of how often I ate over the sink would be enough to trigger her mouth to twitch.
The tick of disapproval—I'd seen that a few times.
We all knew that my mother had endured a life of discomfiture, not quite able to keep up with her friends on my father's average income. She loved him, we knew that, too—how could she not?—but my mother hadn't resisted overcompensating by raising Martha and me as though we were enrolled in some sort of finishing school, prepping us for the best chances of bagging ourselves a lawyer or doctor—anyone, in fact, with means. She thought little girls should be ladylike, grow up to find husbands who could provide them with a good standard of living, therefore guaranteeing their happy ever after.
But I know all about those.
With my sister, Mum's strategy had largely stuck, although Martha had been deft enough to find a lawyer with a big heart. But when I'd first seen Charlie, loading logs onto his boss's truck, sun-kissed forearms flexing from underneath his forest-issue jacket, and absolutely no concept of how attractive he was, I knew right then who my table manners were for.
Mum had warned me that Charlie was rough around the edges; unrefined, she'd said, with too much charm for his own good. That twenty-five was too young to get married—to a forester at least—and that it would all end in tears.
She'd been right. Charlie had a lot to be sorry for these days.
I watched as flecks of basil cemented themselves to the plate in front of me.
I needed to call my parents.
I hadn't spoken to them for nearly three weeks and I was supposed to keep them updated on the size of Martha's ankles. Being twenty-seven didn't afford me much respite from my mother's rightness, but thankfully the three-hour flight between the UK and their retirement home on Minorca did.
The stool wobbled from under me as I slid from it and rounded the breakfast bar, plonking my things into the left of two adjacent Belfast sinks. We'd gone for his-and-hers, Mr Jefferson and I. Largely because I couldn't stand it when Charlie barged into the kitchen with an armful of muddy veg, and partly—quietly—because there was an element of charm having two sinks sat side by side in front of the best view in the house. Those are the kinds of uncharacteristic decisions you make when you're love-drunk. That blissful time before the tears arrived.
I looked for more washing up on the worktops while water thrashed into the sink over the handful of items I'd deposited there. It was six forty-five.
Where is he? I wondered, squirting a generous dose of washing liquid into the steaming bowl. I'd called dinner already.
There was still no sign of him outside as I plunged my hands into the hot suds. The skin between my fingers was starting to get a little sore. I could invest in a pair of Marigolds but my hands were washed so many times at the cake shop it seemed pointless to bother with gloves at home.
Martha said I'm the only person she knows who actively opts to use the sink over the dishwasher. Martha's the only person I know who actively opts to teeter precariously on heels at eight months pregnant, indifferent to the fact her ankles are now as wide as her knees. She's tried to convince me of the benefits of heels—elongation of the leg, posture, femininity in general—just as I've tried explaining to her that unless we're having guests for dinner it would take me a week to fill the dishwasher. Besides, this view across the valley is more than worthy of the occasional chapped hand.
When we'd first bought our half of the farmhouse from Mrs Hedley next door, we widened this window for just that reason. A stunning view through the side face of the cottage, out across the gentle fall of our lawns to the blue-black waters of the reservoir.
You can see every colour nature has to offer through that window, helped no end by Charlie's weakness for planting the foreground with every bulb, shrub and tree he could get away with. When we'd started renovating the cottage he'd concentrated on planting the grounds, so that while the two of us battled it out over room colours, the gardens would all the while be growing.
Eventually, I had to start hiding his wallet during the garden centre's opening hours. It lives in my dresser now with other important, useless things.
I realised now, I'd nagged him too much.
I snatched my hand free as scalding water I hadn't anticipated stung at the back of it, then resumed my surveillance through the glass. The lawns needed cutting. Long grass growing tall against legs of rusting garden furniture.
Where is he? I asked myself again.
I had a straight view down onto half of the reservoir, the rest obscured by the small copse of trees and bushes Charlie had lobbed the tops from after our last big row. Chainsaws were an unusual way to relieve tension, but it had worked for him and the trees were already nearly back to the same height. If I had to bet on it, I'd say my wayward company was over there somewhere.
He couldn't be far but he'd obviously found something far more interesting than my chicken and pasta. Maybe he was sore at me; I'd shouted at him this morning. It was the second time he'd left me to eat alone this week, but I wasn't going to let my meal go cold while I stood on the doorstep hollering like a fishwife. If he wanted to eat his later, fine, but if he kept this up he'd be eating out of tins.
I'd been less than three minutes at the sink and the dishes were done. Martha would never be convinced, but we'd always been different. The picture sat on the sink windowsill testified to that.
My hair had been longer when the photo was taken, but the panic attacks had been easier to manage once I'd hacked off my loose straggly curls. Long hair was an avoidable hindrance when struggling for breath in bed at night.
Further down the kitchen the air was warmer where the earlier light had streamed into the room; Charlie had created a sun-trap here between the two cream bookcases he'd built perpendicular to the window seat. This was where he chose to eat breakfast every morning, with the sun on his back and the dog somewhere near his feet.
Charlie's mum had said that the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree views from the kitchen across all of the gardens would come in very handy when her grandchildren started to arrive. Particularly if they were anywhere near as naughty as their father. Naughty children weren't the problem here.
The side doors clicked open and I stepped out into the garden. "Dave? Dave? Last call, big guy." A handful of birds skittered from the tops of the trees Charlie had attacked. He was coming. I could see him now, galumphing his way up the hill.
He was one ugly creature. A blundering spectacle of pale brown fur as he ran up the embankment towards me, his whole face flying in every direction as the black of his dewlap momentarily defied gravity.
He reached my feet and lolloped back onto his haunches, tail thumping against the ground.
"Hi, Dave." Dave huffed a response. "You're late for dinner." I scowled.
He didn't seem repentant as I followed him into the house.
I kicked my boots off in the hall to the sounds of him inhaling the chicken I'd left for him, making it halfway up the stairs before the phone rang below me.
I knew it would be Martha, calling to check which roast she should make for us Sunday. I didn't want to stay for lunch, but so far I hadn't worked out what my excuse was going to be.
The phone rang on, pricking my conscience. It might not be lunch. It could be the baby. My hand made a play for the handset when the answerphone cut in.
"Hi, you've reached the Jeffersons' money pit. We can't get to the phone right now—I'll be hanging from a stepladder somewhere, and Holly will be out begging our friends to come help us. Leave a message."
"Hol? It's me. I was just wondering if you'd like lamb on Sunday? Or chicken? I think we have chicken, too. If you prefer? Why aren't you home yet? Call me when you get home. Okay, love you. 'Bye."
Dave joined me at the foot of the stairs. "Now you want to keep me company? Stand me up for dinner but happy to watch me take a shower?" Dave didn't answer.
The bare timber treads were hard underfoot as I made my way back upstairs, but there were benefits of having no carpets or wallpaper yet, like not having to worry when two hundred pounds of mastiff shadowed you around the house.
Dave made himself comfortable on the bathroom tiles while I hopped under the steaming jets of the shower. Clouds of icing-sugar dust had left their usual residue all over me. Sugar seemed to cling to skin as it did to teeth.
I'd forgotten to buy a new toothbrush today. Mine had become steadily more and more feathered next to its neighbour over at the sink, which I'd told my sister was a spare. I could buy one before work in the morning, or I could bring mine back from Martha's after the weekend. If I remembered. I'd been so tired lately. I'd be sleepwalking again by November.
Dave was snoozing peacefully when I stepped from the steam. The air was cool on my damp shoulders when I crossed the landing to my bedroom. I quickly dried off and wriggled into my favourite baseball tee and sweats. It was too early to go to bed yet—just looking at it reminded me of the trouble I was having in that department, if trouble was the right word for it. It came in waves, I'd realised, and while I could do without the tiredness I was desperate to enjoy another visit from him tonight. I didn't want to jinx anything so I'd stick with the formula that had seemed to work lately and slip into bed around ten.
Killing time had become a compulsion. Minutes, weeks…now years. I could find something to do for a couple of hours, the meagre pile of ironing that had been sat on my dresser would do. I fished out a few hangers from the wardrobe and began squeezing more clothes in there. A second wardrobe was one of the things we'd never got around to. I straightened up the garments I'd disrupted and scanned the perfect uniformity of Charlie's side of the hanging rail. How did dust even get into wardrobes? Was it some sort of domestic phenomenon? I pulled a few items out for closer inspection. Charlie's summer jacket, Charlie's winter coat, Charlie's shirt, Charlie's shirt, Charlie's shirt. I blew the unloved items in my arms free of their dustings, trying not to let the resentment bubble up in me so close to bedtime. But it was always there, lurking just under the surface, waiting for its chance of escape.
Yes, Charlie Jefferson. You have a lot to be sorry for. chapter 2
Tdidn't want it to stop. It was perfect. The perfect choreography of his need pulsing with my own, grinding in against my hungering body. I'd missed this. I'd missed this so much. Somewhere in the distance, I knew we were against the clock, but it was a warning I pushed away. We were here now and that's all that mattered. He'd come.
Everything I had, every thirsty nerve ending desperate for his touch, I could feel him with, taste him with, but it wasn't enough. I needed more, more of this delicious euphoria. Goose bumps raged over me every time his breath chilled the thin film of sweat on my skin, the sweet earthy scent of him swelling around me with every delectable thrust, the saltiness of his neck inviting me to taste him again—I wanted to drink it all down, to gorge myself with everything of him I was being allowed.
Charlie found his rhythm and locked in on me. I let him. The slick covering of sweat we had each bestowed upon the other the only relief in what would otherwise be a crushing frenzy of need. I didn't care. I wanted it to reign over me like an insatiable creature, to devour me, to gorge itself on us both and force us harder into one another until the lines between our writhing bodies were no more.
I used the hard press of the wall behind me to defy him, to remain unyielding to all that strength as he forced himself into me, again and again. I managed to pull my head away from him, away from all that reward my senses so wanted, so that I could better see the face that had changed my world.
I couldn't hold myself away for long. My hands were already reaching up to slide desperate fingers through the short ruffle of his hair, to grab what I could and take hold of all that dark splendor before pulling his head far enough away to reveal those arresting blue eyes.
He was so beautiful, a perfect combination of light and dark, in all things. From his character to his features, he was the best of both extremes. His pale eyes were staggering against the near-black chestnut of his hair and depending on his mood could hold all the warmth of a Bahamian lagoon or the foreboding of a frozen lake.
He looked back to me now, those eyes the colour of ice water as they burned voraciously at me. He made my breath catch in my throat as though it wasn't supposed to be there—not looking at me but into me, to the promise of the gratification I would give him. I knew from those eyes that only dark thoughts were governing Charlie now, and it excited me.
The first wave of warmth began to build in me, deep and low. It chased all threads of cohesiveness away and I broke eye contact, searching the air around him for any sign of the next moment my pleasure would find me out again. He responded to the shift in my breathlessness as though he could smell the change creeping its way through me.
Another roll, building and building below…warm between my legs, spreading outwards through that part of me and up through my core, towards my breasts, to my neck, where Charlie's hands chased it. It was coming to claim me. The thought of it overpowering me, sweeping me away on a torrent of pleasure, was enough to send me spiralling into its grasp. I struggled to keep rhythm with him now. The choreography was gone as we neared the final act that would see us both explode into our sweet trembling crescendo. I wanted to share it with him, for him to see in my eyes what he did to me, but Charlie was in his own fight, his broad shoulders tense around me as he thundered fiercely through me harder and faster and—
I lost my hold on his hair and felt my body being yanked away from him, away into my ocean of pleasure. I wanted to drown in all that sensation, again and again and again, but not without him. He has to come, too! Desperately I raked my fingers along the centre of his back, down the tanned musculature he'd unintentionally honed through years of working in the forest, and finally, I succumbed to all that he'd offered me.
The last thing, the only thing, I heard besides the frantic labouring of our lungs, was my name on his lips.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

**Giveaway** Guest Post Syrie James - Jane Austen's First Love- Blog Tour

To get the full tour schedule simply click on the banner
or go to the end of the blog post for a full listing

Welcome to my stop on the Jane Austen's First Love Blog Tour sit back and enjoy a guest post from author Syrie James then stick around to enter her giveaway for one copy of her new novel Jane Austen's First Love, US ONLY.

  • ISBN-13: 9780425271353
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/5/2014
  • Pages: 400


INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS   Fifteen-year-old Jane Austen dreams of three things: doing something useful, writing something worthy, and falling madly in love. When she visits her brother in Kent to celebrate his engagement, she meets wealthy, devilishly handsome Edward Taylor—a fascinating young man who is truly worthy of her affections.

The Giveaway is for one copy of
Jane Austen's First Love By Syrie James
Please use the Rafflecopter form below to enter
Good Luck!

Syrie it's all yours!!!

**GIVEAWAY** Interview with Elaine Hussey - The Oleander Sisters

I'm so happy to invite back to the blog Elaine Hussey who was here a year ago talking about her novel The Sweetest Hallelujah and is here today about her brand new just released today novel, The Oleander Sisters.
She's also offered two signed copies of The Oleander Sisters for a Giveaway, details below.
Congratulations Elaine and thanks!

  • ISBN-13: 9780778316435
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 7/29/2014
  • Pages: 352


An emotionally riveting tale of the bonds of family and the power of hope in the sultry Deep South

In 1969, the first footsteps on the moon brighten America with possibilities. But along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a category five storm is brewing, and the Blake sisters of Biloxi are restless for change.

Elaine has generously offered 2 signed copies of
The Oleander Sisters
Please use the Rafflecopter form below to enter
Thanks Elaine!!
Good Luck!

Read an Excerpt:

The girl came out of nowhere.
Cleo Churchill stamped on the brakes in her tiny rental car, gasping as the car swerved before coming to a jolting halt in the narrow little alley of a road somewhere deep in the twisting, ancient heart of the capital city of Jhurat.
For one panicked heartbeat, then another, she thought she'd been seeing things. The blazing desert sun was only then beginning to drop behind the ornate historic buildings, making the shadows lengthen and stretch. She'd lost her way in the tangle of old streets and one city looked very much like another after six months of traveling all around Europe and into the Middle East. And more to the point, there was absolutely no reason a girl should dive in front of her car—
But there she was, young and wide-eyed and startlingly pretty behind her flowing scarves, right there at the passenger window—seemingly unharmed.
I didn't hit her, thank God.
"Please!" The girl spoke through the car's open window, desperate and direct. "Help me!"
Cleo didn't think. The adrenaline of the near miss hummed through her with an almost sickening electricity, but she motioned toward the door, aware as she did it that her hands were shaking.
"Are you all right?" she asked as the girl wrenched open the door and threw herself inside. "Are you hurt? Do you need—?"
"Drive!" the girl cried as if pursued by demons. "Please!
Cleo didn't wait to find out before what. She'd escaped her own demons, hadn't she? She knew how it was done. She stepped on the gas pedal, scowling as she concentrated fiercely on the narrow road in front of her, which she dearly hoped led back out of this maze of ancient narrow streets that wound erratically around Jhurat's central palace, home to its governing sultan. Beside her, the girl breathed heavily and high-pitched, as if she'd been running.
"You're okay," Cleo said, trying to soothe her—or even herself. "We're okay now."
And then a man stalked out of the shadows, directly into the car's path, as if daring Cleo to run straight into him. She heard herself gasp out a curse, but her eyes were fixed on him as surely as if he'd demanded it.
He was tall and fierce, forbidding and uncompromising in the loose robes that marked him a local—a wealthy local—and did nothing at all to conceal his markedly powerful form. The sun was behind him and hid his face, but Cleo could still feel the weight of his stare. Like an impossible knot in her own chest.
He stood there in the center of the road, imperious and bold. He crossed his arms over his broad chest and waited—and it wasn't until she realized he wasn't moving that she also realized she wasn't, either. That she'd stopped the car directly in front of him as if he'd held up his hands like a police officer and commanded it.
When all he'd done was stare.
Despite herself, Cleo shivered. Foreboding. Fear.
And something else, maybe, beneath it, that she'd never felt before.
He bit out something ferocious in Arabic that made the girl beside her jerk in her seat as if he'd slapped her, and Cleo's stomach twisted.
This is not good, she thought.
"Get out of the car," he said then, his voice deep and autocratic, and it took a long, shuddering moment for Cleo to realize that this time, he was speaking directly to her. Issuing an implacable order in a language she could understand, right through the glass. "Now."
"Who is that?" she whispered, still unable to pull her gaze away from him. He was simply too mesmerizing. Too powerful.
The girl beside her let out a sound that was something like a sob, but far angrier. When Cleo finally managed to yank her attention away from the dark and dangerous man taking over the road before them, the girl's jaw was set in a stubborn line, and her mouth trembled. Making her look even younger than Cleo had originally thought she was.
"That," the girl said bitterly, staring out the front window at the man who still stood there, not moving an inch, as if he expected it to be nothing but a matter of moments before he was obeyed, "is His Excellency, the Sultan of Jhurat."
This was, Cleo realized dimly then, a great deal worse than not good.
"What?" she asked weakly, that thudding panic hitting harder, sending out shock waves. He didn't look like a sultan. He looked like some kind of warrior angel, sent down to smite and awe. She felt both smitten and awed, the sensations too hot and almost painful inside of her. "Why would a sultan—the sultan—chase you down an alley?"
"Because he is a demon from hell." The girl's mouth twisted. "He is also my brother."
Cleo swallowed, hard.
He stood there, waiting. And now she understood what that proud ruthlessness meant. What that thing was that emanated from him like a force field, rendering the whole city small and inconsequential beside him.
Cleo's mind raced, and for some reason, she thought of Brian then. Weak, lying Brian. Brian, who had humiliated her. Brian, who had said he loved her but couldn't possibly have meant it, could he? Brian, who she'd believed so completely when he'd never had even a shred of the intensity or authority the man before her simply… oozed.
The sultan jerked his head in a silent yet remarkably eloquent command to exit the vehicle.
And Cleo forgot about stupid, cheating Brian and the girlfriend he'd kept on the side for almost the entirety of their doomed engagement.
This was exactly the kind of thing she'd promised her parents back in Ohio would never happen to her, because she'd imagined she was too smart, or too cynical, to fall prey to scenarios like this. This was exactly what her mother and her hysterical aunts had predicted would happen if she did something so radical as explore the world by herself. She could practically hear the doom-and-gloom predictions they'd all shared with her whether she'd wanted them to or not, like a going-away present, as if they were whispering it in her ear from across the planet.
They'd begged her not to do this. They'd told her running away from her problems was only running straight into new ones. And now look what had happened.
The sultan waited. Less patient by the moment.
"Just drive over him," the girl beside her demanded. "Mow him down where he stands."
"I can't," Cleo said, except she found she was whispering. "I can't do that."
And everything seemed to slow down, as though the air was made of syrup and there was nothing but him. That man. The sultan. She shifted the car into Park. Beside her, the girl let out a frustrated noise, but Cleo's attention was riveted on the man at the end of her bumper. Still. Watchful. Ferocious.
Her neck prickled with a deep foreboding. With anxiety. With the sense of immensity, as if what she was about to do was already sealed in stone, as ancient and unmoving and inevitable as the venerable city around her, as the old streets beneath her.
As the man before her. The sultan of all he surveyed.
Who couldn't be weak, she knew somehow, if he tried.
Cleo turned off the rental car's ignition with a decisive click and then opened her door, ignoring the girl in the passenger seat as she got out and stood there.
The sultan moved then. He nodded at someone behind her and men in military uniforms appeared as if from thin air, surrounding the rental car, all wearing machine guns that dwarfed their bodies.
Cleo didn't understand a single word of the rapid-fire Arabic, all shouted back and forth in so many harsh and loud male voices, and yet somehow she couldn't bring herself to look away from the sultan as he continued to stand there staring back at her.
One of his men appeared beside her and held out his hand, making Cleo flinch. She glanced at him, then back at the sultan, aware then of how fragile she was. She felt it in ways she never had before. Fragile and exposed and frighteningly vulnerable.
And it was still better than how Brian had made her feel, two weeks before their wedding, when she'd come home early from work and found him on the living room floor of his condo with that woman.
The sultan said something, and she realized it wasn't the first time.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," she said, and she hardly sounded like herself.
He paused, and she wished she had something more than this shadowy impression of his face. That the sun would hide behind the buildings at last so she could look at him without her eyes watering. So she could convince herself that he was neither as cruel nor as inhuman as he appeared while backlit like a god.
So she could tell herself that the twisting heat that knotted her belly, low and hot, was based on something more than the intuition she'd learned better than to trust.
But his voice, when it came, was as calm as it was deep, despite the tension she could hear beneath it, and for no reason at all, it eased her. Even as it set her on fire.
"Do you know who I am?"
A faint nod. "Give my man your keys."
An implacable order delivered in perfect English, with a crisp British accent to boot. Cleo knew she should ask questions. Demand to know what was happening to her, what he planned to do next. Instead, she simply obeyed.
She opened her hand and the man beside her took the keys from her palm, and the whole time she was lost in the will of the powerful man whose face was still in shadows before her.
Why couldn't she seem to breathe? Why did it feel as if the earth were buckling beneath her feet when she could see—because no one else was reacting to it, no one else was moving, the car was solid and unmoving beside her—that it was only happening inside of her?
Everything seemed to stretch out, slow and taut, but then the car engine turned over beside her, the men and the car and the angry girl disappeared after a brief consultation, and Cleo was standing alone in an alleyway in a foreign country with a man so great and powerful he held a title she'd half believed only existed in books.
He moved then, and she wished he hadn't. He was like liquid, a threat wrapped in poetry, athletic and menacing at once. The knot inside her pulled taut, red and hot. Cleo stood still as he walked in a slow circle around her. He held something in his hands and she realized it was the wallet she'd left sitting in one of the cup holders in the car. One of his men must have—
"Eyes on me," he ordered her, his voice a silken command.
And when she jerked her attention back up from her wallet to his face, she could see it, finally. Could see him.
Beautiful, something whispered inside her, though he wasn't.
He was much too fierce. He reminded her of those remote villages she'd found in her travels, clinging to the sides of rugged mountains long days from anywhere, proud and breathtaking and unimaginably tough. He had thick dark hair and a poet's face made shockingly masculine by a warrior's cool, light gaze and the sort of tough jaw Cleo associated with soldiers and martial artists—and thugs. A blade of a nose. Faint lines around his eyes suggested he must have smiled at some point in his life, but she couldn't imagine it. He seemed carved entirely from stone.
He looked so masculine and so inarguably fierce it was almost as if he and soft, round-faced,nice-looking Brian were of a different species. She told herself that was why her heart beat so fast. Because he was the not Brian.
And because he really was beautiful.
"You are American."
It wasn't a question.
His gaze moved over her and she had to fight not to squirm. She was wearing dark trousers and scuffed boots beneath a loose-fitting T-shirt, and a dark jacket as much to cover herself in this conservative part of the world as to block the faint chill in the air, hinting at the coming fall night. She'd twisted her long hair back, but the long day had coaxed some of it down again, strands falling forward messily and making her feel much younger than her twenty-five years.
Cleo didn't want to ask herself why, exactly, she wished there was something more in his dark gaze then. Something to match that heat inside her.
He flipped open her wallet and looked inside. "You are a very long way from Ohio."
"I'm traveling," she said, and her voice sounded strange. Huskier than usual. Raw, somehow. "Backpacking."
She didn't want to admit that, for some reason. For a hundred reasons. But he lifted his gaze from her wallet and the license he was presumably studying, and she felt hot. Caught.
"Yes," she said, fighting to sound normal. "It's been six months. I fly home in two weeks."
And the truth was, she didn't want to go back. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
"Unless, of course, you find yourself detained," he said, as if he could read her mind.
She frowned. "Why would I find myself detained?"
"A prison sentence would be considered a lenient penalty in this country for a foreign national caught in the act of kidnapping a member of the sultan's family," he said, almost casually.
It was undoubtedly suicidal to scowl at this man. But Cleo only thought about that after she did it.
"I didn't kidnap anyone. Your sister ran in front of my car. Should I have flattened her beneath my tires?" She didn't remember herself so much as see that incredulous expression on his face, and she coughed once. Delicately. "I thought I was helping. And also not committing vehicular manslaughter."
The sultan stared at her for a moment, that incredulous expression shifting to something else. Something far more dangerous.
"What do you imagine my sister was running from?" he asked, and it occurred to her that his easy, casual tone was in truth neither of those things.
"Maybe you're marrying her off? To some ally or other?"
The day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon marked a summer where anything at all could happen. The brother you'd given up for dead in a war everybody hated could suddenly turn up alive, and the sister you'd protected all her life could finally be getting married. Any other woman would have been happy with the sudden turn of good fortune, but not Sis Blake. She was scared of happiness. Let too much joy seep into your life and you'd soon find yourself hunkered beside twisted wreckage wondering what you did to make everything turn out so wrong.
As if Sis needed any more evidence than her own history to tell her something awful was heading her way, the Amen cobbler cooling in the kitchen at Sweet Mama's Café gave off the scent of secrets, a spicy smell so sharp it could cut away everything you held dear.
Still, Sis kept her troubled thoughts to herself. There was no sense spoiling things for her sister. Emily was humming as she sliced into the cobbler, serving up hope by the spoonful.
"Eat up, Sis." Emily's face was radiant with happiness and heat from the ovens. "It's the best I've ever made."
Sis forced herself to eat so she wouldn't be the one who wiped the smile off her sister's face, and Emily went back to her baking and humming, every now and then glancing out the back café window.
What was she seeing besides a backyard lit up with red and blue Christmas lights, though it was July and so hot in Bi-loxi the seagulls abandoned the beaches along the Mississippi Sound and pecked at Sweet Mama's display windows trying to get inside where it was air-conditioned? Was Emily seeing a six-year-old son who needed a daddy? Was she seeing a little boy born out of wedlock and tagged with ugly rumors by a few vicious gossips Sweet Mama had run out of the café with a broom? Or was she seeing what Sis did, an endearing little boy in an outgrown Superman suit who was thriving in a family of women?
Even that worried Sis. Get too complacent and bad luck would hunt you down. The bite of Amen cobbler went down hard and sat in Sis's stomach like an accusation.
"I've gotta get going or I'll be late." Glad for an excuse to push aside the cobbler, she hugged her sister, then hurried out the door, climbed into her sturdy black Valiant and headed toward the bus station.
Sis whizzed along the beach road, replaying the evening two weeks earlier when Emily had walked into Sweet Mama's Café on the arm of a stranger and announced, "This is the man I'm going to marry." Then she'd gone to every table and booth to show off her engagement ring, a stone so big it was bound to be a cubic zirconia.
Many of the diners were regulars who had watched Emily grow up, mostly at the café, shielded by the wide skirts and fierce heart of Sweet Mama. They knew how Mark Jones had gotten her pregnant, then run off to join the army to get out of marrying her, and they were happy she'd finally found somebody who would love her back.
Sis tried to be, too, but she was not the kind of woman to be swept off her feet. Emily's fiancé was handsome in the too-slick way that made her skin crawl. Every time Sis glanced at him, he was checking his reflection in the Coca-Cola mirror behind Sweet Mama's soda fountain.
Still, Emily had obviously seen something in her fiancé that Sis missed, so she'd trotted over to her future brother-in-law, determined to learn more about him.
"Larry, I guess you already know I'm the watchdog of the family."
"You don't do yourselfjustice, Sis." His smile was wide and easy, this pharmaceutical salesman named Larry Chastain, who had swept Emily off her feet six weeks earlier when she'd gone to Walgreens to get some Pepto-Bismol for Andy's upset stomach. "I'd call you Emily's guardian angel."
He oozed sincerity, and in spite of her reservations, Sis found herself smiling back.
"Tell me about yourself, Larry."
"Ah, the dreaded inquisition."
His smile was still in place, but Sis thought she'd seen a flash of irritation. Or maybe she was just looking for reasons to keep her trusting sister from racing to the altar with the wrong man.
"I'm blunt, Larry. Maybe too blunt. But I need to know my baby sister is going to be in good hands."
"I love your sister and make more than enough money to give her and Andy everything they want and need. Emily tells me you're a worrier, but rest assured, you have nothing to worry about, Sis."
Emily had walked up then and whisked him off to the kitchen to meet Beulah. It wasn't until they'd gone that Sis realized Larry Chastain hadn't told her one single thing about himself. She stood there looking down at the floor as if she expected to see a greasy spot where he'd been standing.
What was it about Larry that set her on edge? Sis hadn't been able to put her finger on the cause during that meeting two weeks ago, but driving along the beach road to pick up a brother who had received a Purple Heart, she wondered how Larry had managed to avoid the draft. The very idea of a draft dodger in a patriotic family where the men had served and sacrificed for their country made her want to snatch Emily up and run.
By the time Sis parked her Valiant at the bus station, she had to deep breathe in order to collect herself. It wouldn't do for her brother to see her in this shape. She adjusted the rear-view mirror in the off chance her reflection would show some magical transformation. Unfortunately, there she was—plain and chubby with a perpetual worry line creasing her forehead, and hair so curly it always looked like it had been styled by an eggbeater. Still, she tried to pat it into place, and even dug around in her purse to see if she could find a tube of lipstick, as if a little slash of red could turn back the clock. It had been two long years since she'd seen her brother, and she liked to think the sight of her would remind him of catching fireflies on summer nights and fishing off the pier and playing baseball in the backyard.
She turned up nothing in her purse but a wallet, a wad of tissue, two pieces of bubble gum and the stub of a pencil. Sighing, she pinched her cheeks, bit her lower lip to add some color and then put on a smile she hoped would make her look like a woman who had everything in the world she'd ever wanted.
As she stepped out of the car, Sis held out hope that her brother would be the one to turn her hornet's nest of worry into something manageable, a funny story they'd all laugh at a dozen years from now when Andy was graduating from high school and Emily was baking a celebration cake at Sweet Mama's. But Jim was leaning against the wall on his crutch, blowing smoke from a Lucky Strike into the humid evening air, his face as closed as a fist. "Jim. Oh, my God, Jim!"
"Sis," was all he said, and when she wrapped her arms around him, she understood that's all he could manage. His flesh had vanished from his bones, and with it the buoyant spirit that used to radiate from him in waves that made him almost hot to the touch.
Without another word, she led him to her car and headed back to the café. He stared at the Gulf as they barreled down Highway 90, the breeze from his rolled-down window blowing his yellow hair straight back from eyes turned as glassy and unseeing as the blue china plate Sweet Mama had picked to serve his welcome-home cake. Sis's hope flew right out the window. She imagined it sailing across the water like the favorite kite she'd loved and lost when she was six years old, before Emily and Jim were born, before their pink Victorian house across from the seawall became a place where a little girl had to grow up too fast.
"Jim, I know it must have been awful for you over there."
He didn't say a word, and who could blame him? Awful could hardly begin to describe it. The prosthetic leg he'd tossed into the car along with his duffel bag was a testament to the horrors he'd endured.
"If you want to talk about it, I'm a good listener."
"Give it a rest, Sis. I don't want to talk about it."
"That's okay. Maybe some other time."
That didn't seem likely. As she turned her attention to the radio, Sis tried to keep her despair from showing. She found a station where Elvis Presley was crooning "If I Can Dream."
Were there any dreams left in that car? Sis quickly switched to a station that wouldn't remind both of them of all they'd lost.
"You won't believe how Andy's grown. And Sweet Mama's still feisty as ever. She wanted to invite everybody in town to your homecoming, but I finally talked some sense into her. I thought it would be easier for you with just family."
Jim turned her way with a shut-down face full of sharp angles and shadows, then swiveled toward the window to stare at the water. Was he watching the whitecaps? Remembering Vietnam? Wishing on the moon?
"Do you want to hear about Emily's fiancé?"
"Not particularly."
"Well, you ought to. He's a jackass."
"They run the world."
"Not my world, not while I have breath."
Sis had been taking care of her family since she was fourteen and that awful accident took their parents. She didn't plan on stopping just because Emily was trying to outrun her past by racing toward the altar. And maybe that was Sis's fault. She'd always encouraged her baby sister to be the fairy princess in a fairy-tale world.
Sis took a sharp left in order to avoid Keesler Air Force Base. No sense giving Jim any reminders that the military had mowed the Blake family men down like ninepins, leaving only him behind to pick up the slack. Not that Sis held out any high hopes of that happening. A man who wouldn't even carry on a conversation about his family was as likely to see after their welfare as Sis was to have somebody stop her in the street and tell her she was beautiful.
Just look at the pair of them. She was an old sourpuss and Jim was still in the killing jungles somewhere on the other side of the world.
It was a pure relief to see the café, a fine, old building of moss-covered brick, reflecting the style of the Gulf Coast's Spanish history, shaded by a couple of hundred-year-old live oaks and lit up like a rocket ship on blast off. Christmas lights and silver tinsel circled the plate-glass windows where gold lettering proclaimed Sweet Mama's Café, and underneath in red was etched Home of the Famous Amen Cobbler!
Beyond the front window was Sweet Mama with her coronet of silver braids and a pearl brooch on her green linen dress, laughing at something Emily had said. That was a talent Emily had—making her grandmother laugh, making everybody around her smile. Everybody except Sis, who hadn't found much to smile about since she discovered she hated the idea of spending the rest of her life selling pies, Amen or otherwise.
The flush on Emily's cheeks could have been excitement or summer heat. With blond curls escaping from her pony-tail, she looked sixteen. A strap of her yellow sundress had slid off one shoulder, and the blue apron she still wore was dusted with flour. Even disheveled, Emily was beautiful.
Sis would never be beautiful, with or without a dusting of flour. She would never look sixteen, even if she could get her frizzy brown bob into a ponytail. She would never be the kind of woman men wanted to sweep off her feet.
Envy ambushed her, so unexpected she almost crashed her car into a live oak.
"Watch out!" Jim grabbed for the steering wheel, but Sis slapped his hands away.
"I've got it. I'm just excited, is all."
How could you envy the sister you'd dressed and fed and soothed at night with silly, made-up stories so she'd sleep with the lights off?
Perhaps it wasn't envy but longing fueled by the perspective of age. How could Sis have known at fourteen that once you set out on a path, it can take you so far from your dreams you'll end up at the age of thirty-four not even remembering who you once wanted to be?
She'd given up everything for her family, even her name. Beth. Nobody called her that anymore. Everybody just called her Sis, as if she were nothing more than the role she played.
The sign on the door of Sweet Mama's read Closed for a Private Party. There was nothing private about it, of course. Tomorrow, word would be all over town. Sweet Mama would tell the breakfast regulars, and Emily was too gentle to refuse details to anybody who asked. By ten o'clock, everybody in Biloxi would know that Sweet Mama had made Jim's favorite red velvet cake, and Emily had forgotten to take off her apron and Jim had refused to wear his leg.
There it lay on the backseat of Sis's Valiant, another piece of sand in her craw. What do you say to a brother just returning from the hell of Vietnam? Why don't you let me strap on your prosthetic leg so you'll look normal and Emily won't cry? Or do you just stand there with sand drifting into your sandals while Emily races out the front door, already crying before she gets close enough to hug her twin, the Gulf breeze blowing both of them sideways?
Maybe the Gulf was blowing all of them sideways, and had been for so long Sis didn't know what normal was anymore. She thought about a brother coming home broken and a sister smiling as she raced toward disaster. She thought about a life gone so far off track she didn't even remember the direction she'd been going.
Best not to think too far into the future, to simply put one sandy sandal in front of the other until she was standing in Sweet Mama's, surrounded by the smells of cake and pie and fried chicken and freshly cut tomatoes from Sweet Mama's prize crop, just standing there silent, gnawing on a chicken leg and watching over her brother and sister as she always had; watching as Emily laughed through her tears and Jim was engulfed by the ones who loved him best and would love him always, even if he never got his mind back from Vietnam and his leg out of Sis's car. "Aunt Sis! Aunt Sis!"
The TV perched on the edge of the serving bar was blaring wide-open. Andy sat so close he was crossing his eyes to see.
"C'mon over! They gonna land on the moon!"
For two cents Sis would get on that rocket ship with the astronauts. And she wouldn't care whether she found the moon or not. All she wanted was to be as far away from her current life as she could get.
Sweet Mama was relieved when Sis quit glaring over her fried chicken leg at What's His Name and walked over to join Andy at the TV. Why, from the look on her face you'd think What's His Name was a fly set to land on Jim's celebration cake and Sis was a flyswatter.
Larry Chastain. That was the name of Emily's new fiancé. Sweet Mama would write it down this very minute if she thought she could do it without getting caught. But Emily might see her and start worrying all over again about her for-getfulness. And Sis was bound to notice. That girl didn't miss a thing. And she wouldn't stop at calling Sweet Mama forgetful, either. She'd use the scary words senile and hardening of the arteries and dementia.