Saturday, October 27, 2012

EXCERPT: The Left Hand of Calvus

Title: The Left Hand of Calvus (part of the Warriors of Rome collection)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Format(s): eBook, Paperback


So this is Pompeii. The prosperous city at the base of Vesuvius.
I’ve heard the tales about this place. Quiet. Warm. Near the sea. Until recently, with the rudis of freedom so close I could almost feel its wooden hilt in my hands, I had considered coming here to make my home once I was no longer a slave. That is until Fortune decided I should remain in bondage. I’d had perhaps three fights left, but now I, along with two other men from my familia gladiatori, are on our way to the Pompeiian politician who’s now our master.
In spite of the fact that I’d lost my chance at freedom, the rest of the men in the familia had been envious.
“A nobleman? In Pompeii?” One had slapped my arm. “You lucky bastard!”
“Agreed,” another had said. “You won’t be in the arena anymore, and if you’ve got to stay a slave, Saevius, you could do worse than to live out your days as some rich bastard’s bodyguard.”
A third had added, “Pompeii? I hear in that place, the wine they pour in noblemen’s houses tastes like the lips of Venus herself.”
The other men traveling with me had been thrilled by that notion. Me, I’m as enthusiastic about any woman’s lips, including Venus’s, as I am about spending the rest of my days a fucking slave, so I’d simply muttered, “I’ll be sure to give my regards to Bacchus.”
What servant drinks the same wine as his masters, I can hardly imagine. But never mind, because the wine here is probably no different from what flows in Rome. After all, Pompeii doesn’t seem much different from Rome, if you ask me. A great deal smaller, yes, and much less crowded. At least in this part of the city, though, it’s all the same terracotta roofs and limestone walls and, as we near the market, people dragging unruly livestock down stone streets past lumbering carts and clouds of buzzing flies. Smells like bread, sweat, fish, and dung, just like Rome, with chickens talking over the shouting bakers, fishmongers, butchers, and vintners while hammering and banging come from workshops behind shop fronts and booths. Perhaps I should have considered retiring to Herculaneum instead. Then again, if Pompeii isn’t in life what it is in stories, then Herculaneum likely isn’t the luxurious place it’s said to be either.
Not that I have a choice now. Pompeii is my home until I’m sold or I die. Or my new master sees fit to free me when I’m no longer of use to him.
Ectur, the monolith of a Parthian tasked with bringing the three of us down from Rome, leads us deeper into Pompeii’s stinking, bustling market. With every exhausted step, our chains rattle over the city’s noise. Though the streets are crowded, people move aside to let us pass. Some give us wary looks, standing between us and their wives and children. Even those struggling to move carts down these difficult roads stay out of our way. They’re especially wary of Ectur. We certainly look the part of gladiators—scarred, tanned brutes, all of us—and since Ectur’s unchained, people probably think he’s our lanista. No citizen with any sense wants near a lanista.
The market must be close to the Forum. All over the place, noblemen strut like cocks and sneer at slaves and citizens, just like every one I ever saw in Rome, as though the gods themselves should fear them. Would’ve liked to have met one of them in the arena during my fighting days; he’d have wept to the gods for mercy, and that pristine white toga would have been stained in shit before I’d fully raised my sword.
But, gods willing, my days in the arena are behind me forever.
Just beyond the market, where the streets fan out toward clusters of high-walled villas, Ectur approaches a squat, balding man in a tunic that’s far too clean to belong to a common laborer. The man’s attention is buried in a beeswax tablet resting on his arm, and he’s muttering to himself as he scratches something into it with a stylus.
He glances up at us, and I realize he only has one eye. Dropping his attention back to the tablet, he grumbles, “Thought you’d leave me waiting all bloody day.”
“Longer journey from Rome than it is from your master’s house,” Ectur mutters.
Without looking up, the one-eyed man says, “I’ll need to look at them before you leave. The Master Laurea will be unhappy if they are not up to his standards.”
Ectur stands straighter, narrowing his eyes. “Caius Blasius doesn’t deal in faulty goods.”
“Then he’ll not mind if I inspect his goods to be sure.” The one-eyed man gestures at us with his stylus. “Whereas I have a beating waiting if I bring to my master slaves who are not to his liking. So he’ll—” He stops abruptly, his eye widening. “Where is the fourth? Master Laurea specifically selected four men, not three.”
“The fourth fell ill. Terrible fever, and the medicus can’t say if he’ll live.” Ectur pulls a scroll from his belt and hands it to the one-eyed man. “Caius Blasius gives his word your master will be compensated.”
Glancing back and forth from the scroll to Ectur, the man sighs heavily. “The master will not be happy. It was the fourth in particular who interested him.”
Ectur sniffs with amusement. “That scrawny Phoenician is hardly worth the sestertii your master paid for him. An entertaining gladiator, maybe, but he’s worthless outside the arena.”
I can’t help a quiet laugh. It’s true enough; the idiot Phoenician is only alive—assuming he still is—because he’s less afraid of his opponents than he is of the punishment for being a coward on the sands. A man bred to be a bodyguard, he is not.
“The master selected his men for a reason,” the one-eyed man snaps at Ectur. He sighs and shakes his head. “Never mind, then. If he isn’t here, he isn’t here. The other three had best be in good condition.”
Ectur doesn’t respond. He folds his arms across his chest, watching with a scowl as the man with the stylus inspects us each in turn, tutting and muttering to himself in between jabbing us with his finger and etching something into the tablet. He pokes at scars and bruises, eyeing us when we flinch, and then checks our teeth and eyes. Since I was a child, I’ve been through more of these inspections than I can count, and still I have to force myself not to put both hands around his throat and show him I’m as fit and strong as a gladiator—or bodyguard, in this case—ought to be.
Finally, he grunts and slams shut the leather cover on the wax tablet. “They’re all well.”
“Good,” says the Parthian. “Give my regards to your master.”
“And yours.” The one-eyed man gestures sharply at us. “Come with me.”
Without a word from any of us, we follow the man. His legs are shorter than ours nearly by half, but he walks quickly, his gait fast and angry, and with heavy chains on our ankles, it’s a struggle to keep up with him. Ectur doesn’t come with us.
Soon, we will meet our new master.
By name, Junius Calvus Laurea isn’t unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard Caius Blasius mention him—usually with a scowl—and he’s apparently bought gladiators from my former master before. I don’t know his face, though, and I know nothing of the man whose life I will be sworn to guard. Only that he isn’t a lanista and my existence no longer includes the inside of an arena. Freedom may not be in my future, but Fortune be praised a thousand times over anyway.
The one-eyed servant leads us down a narrow road between the enormous villas lined up in ranks just inside the wall along the northern edge of the city. In spite of our chains, my fellow former gladiators and I exchange smiles. A villa instead of a ludus gladiatori? Indeed, this will be a new life. The existence of a bodyguard isn’t safe per se, but unless our master has an unusual number of enemies, we’ll protect him with our presence more often than our fighting skills. We’ll more likely die from boredom than a blade.
On our way out of Rome, we’d passed through the shadow of the nearly completed Colosseum. As the immense structure’s cool shade rested on my neck and shoulders, I’d whispered a prayer of thanks, in spite of the chains on my wrists and ankles, for my good fortune. Rumors abound about what’s planned for the Colosseum, and some say the games there will be far greater and more brutal than all the Ludi we’d barely survived at Circus Maximus. Another year or two, people say, and it will be complete. Perhaps I’ll never earn my rudis and the freedom that accompanies it now, but any gladiator should be grateful for the chance to serve a nobleman rather than set foot in that place.
We stop in front of one of the countless villas. There, two massive, heavily-armed guards push open the tall gates, and we walk inside. Our one-eyed guide takes us through the luxurious home to the garden in the back. Here, within the high walls covered in trailing ivy and in the shade of a massive cypress tree, servants and statues surround our new master.
As soon as I see him, I recognize the Master Laurea. I’ve seen him at the ludus before, watching us train and inspecting us the way his servant did today. I didn’t know at the time he was the one called Calvus Laurea, but I never forgot that face. Carved from cold stone, sharply angled, with intense blue eyes that always emphasize the smirk or scowl on his lips.
He lounges across a couch, cradling a polished cup in his hand as a servant fans away the day’s heat with enormous feathers. A large bodyguard stands behind Calvus Laurea, as does a black-eyed servant with a wine jug clutched to her chest.
The man who led us here stops us with a sharp gesture, and all three of us go to our knees, heads bowed.
The master gets up. His sandals scuff on the stone ground. “Stand, all of you.” As one, we rise to attention.
“I am Junius Cal—” His brow furrows. He looks from one of us to the next. Narrowing his eyes, he turns to the man who brought us. “There are three, Ataiun. Where is the fourth?”
The one-eyed servant bows his head. “My apologies, Dominus. There were only three. The fourth was stricken with fever and unable to travel.” He pulls out the scroll Ectur had given him. “His master sends this promise of compensation.”
Master Laurea scowls. “Very well. I suppose it will have to do.” He waves a hand at his servant. “See that it’s accounted for.” To us, he says, “I am Junius Calvus Laurea, and I am your new master.”
Once again, he looks at us each in turn. I try not to notice how his gaze keeps lingering on me longer than it does on the others, but his pauses are too conspicuous to ignore.
At last, he speaks: “You’re the one called Saevius, yes?”
I square my shoulders. “I am, Dominus.”
Without taking his eyes off me, he says to his servant, “Show the others to their quarters.” He gestures at me. “This one stays here.”
The men who accompanied me bow their heads sharply, and a moment later, they are gone.
Master Laurea steps closer to me, still looking me squarely in the eyes. “Welcome to Pompeii, Saevius,” he says with a slight smile. “You may call me Calvus.”
His request for familiarity sends ghostly spiders creeping up the length of my spine.
Without taking his eyes off mine, he snaps his fingers. “Bring us wine. Both of us.”
The servant holding the wine jug obeys immediately, and the spiders are more pronounced now, my breath barely moving as the woman pours two cups of wine. She hands one to our master, and then the other to me.
“Leave us,” Calvus says. “All of you.”
Gods, be with me . . .
In moments, I am alone with my new master, a cup of wine in my uncertain hand. Calvus brings his cup to his lips, pausing to say, “Drink, Saevius. I insist.”
I do. I can’t say if it tastes like the cunt of Venus, but it’s as sweet and rich as Pompeiian wines are said to be, if slightly soured by the churning in the pit of my stomach.
“You won’t be my bodyguard, Saevius,” Calvus says suddenly. “Not like the two who came with you.”
I suddenly can’t taste the wine on my tongue. With much effort, I swallow it. “Whatever you ask of me, Dominus.”
“I have two tasks for you, Saevius.” Something about the way he says my name, the way he keeps saying my name, sends more spiders wandering up and down my back and beneath my flesh. “One simple, one less so.”
I bow my head slightly. “I am here to serve, Dominus.”
“Calvus,” he says. “Call me Calvus.”
I slowly raise my head. “I am here to serve . . . Calvus.”
He grins. “Much better.”
He’s playing a game here. He has to be. What game it is, and what role I play, I can’t work out.
I take another drink of tasteless wine. “What are my duties?”
“There is a ludus gladiatori on the south side of the city.” The mention of a ludus twists something in my chest. Calvus continues, “Your first task is to present a gift to the lanista of that ludus. A gift of five hundred sestertii from Cassius, the city magistrate.” My skin crawls as an odd smile curls the corners of my new master’s mouth. “Cassius deeply regrets he could not present it himself, but”—the smile intensifies—“I promised I would take care of it for him.”
In spite of Calvus’s expression, relief cools my blood. Delivering monetary gifts instead of fighting other gladiators for the entertainment of a roaring crowd? Even if it means setting foot in a ludus again, I’ll be there only as a messenger, not a fighter in training.
Gods, I thank you. Again and again, I thank you.
“Let’s discuss your second task.” He tilts his head just so, like he’s looking for answers to questions he hasn’t yet asked. “Blasius spoke highly of you, Saevius. And your reputation precedes you all the way from Rome.” He raises his cup. “A tremendous fighter, but also a loyal servant.”
He’s quiet for a moment. It’s a silence I’m certain I’m supposed to fill, but I don’t know how.
“Thank you, Dominus,” is all I can think to say, and quickly correct it with, “Calvus. Thank you, Calvus.”
He lowers his wine cup. A different smile forms on his mouth, one that’s taut and unnerving. I’m less and less comfortable as the silence between us lingers.
At last, he speaks, and there’s something in his voice this time, an edge that prickles the back of my neck. “After you’ve delivered the money to the lanista, you will remain at the ludus.” His eyes narrow as one corner of his mouth lifts. “As an auctoratus.”
My heart beats faster. “Dominus, with respect, an auctoratus? I am not a citizen. I’m not even a freedman. How can I be an auctoratus if I am still—”
Calvus puts up a hand. “You will remain my slave, of course, but until such time as I tell you otherwise, you will live at the ludus. Train as a gladiator.” He inclines his head and lowers his voice. “To everyone but us and the gods, and according to the documents that will accompany you, you are a citizen voluntarily submitting to be owned by the ludus and its lanista. Am I understood?”
No. No, what are you asking me to do? And why?
But I nod anyway. “Yes, Dominus.”
He moves now, walking toward, then around me, circling me slowly as he continues speaking. “While you train and fight, you will keep your eyes and ears open. Listen and watch the men around you.”
I sweep my tongue across my dry lips. Every familia gladiatori is already rife with dangerous rivalries. To spy on my brothers within the ludus? Especially when I am the newest blood? I should cut my own throat now and be done with it.
“As an auctoratus,” he says, still walking around me, “you will be able to leave the ludus of your own free will, so long as you return and you don’t leave the city. When I wish to speak to you, I will contact you. Understood?”
“I . . . yes,” I say. “What am I looking for, Dominus? Er, Calvus?”
“You’re a gladiator, Saevius,” he says. “Surely you know how women feel about men like you?”
I nod again. Women were no strangers to the ludus where I trained before. Many of them married, plenty of them noble; my lanista took their money, the women cavorted with gladiators, and the husbands were never the wiser.
“A man of my stature cannot afford the embarrassment of a wife’s . . .” He pauses in both speech and step, wrinkling his nose. “Of a wife’s unsavory indiscretions. Especially with creatures so far below my station.” Calvus resumes his slow, unsettling walk around me. “And when word begins to spread of a woman doing these things, a husband, particularly a husband of my political and social stature, has little choice but to put a stop to it.” He steps into my sight and halts, looking me in the eye. “Which is where you come in, Saevius.”
Oh, dear sweet gods, help me . . .
“You will listen, and you will watch.” Calvus comes closer, eyes narrowing. “Learn the name of the man who keeps drawing my lady Verina into his bed. Am I clear, gladiator?”
In all my years in the arena, my heart has never pounded this hard. What woman doesn’t have slaves as lovers? Gladiators fuck married women as often as we fight amongst ourselves.
Unless Calvus thinks his wife isn’t involved with a slave. One of the freedmen working as trainers? Perhaps the lanista himself? Or one of the munerators renting fighters for some upcoming games? No citizen, especially not a public figure such as Calvus, tolerates that kind of insult from his wife, and for some, divorce isn’t nearly punishment enough.
Regardless of Calvus’s reasoning or what he plans to do once he knows the name of his wife’s lover, is there any place more dangerous for a man than the middle of games played between a wife and the husband she’s scorned?
“Am I clear, gladiator?”
I swallow hard. “Yes, Calvus.”
“Good.” He steps away and lifts his wine again. “I will have your papers drawn up tonight. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken to the ludus owned by the lanista Drusus.”
Drusus. Gods, any lanista but him. I silently beg the ground to open up beneath me. Drusus’s reputation extends beyond any reach Master Calvus could dream of his own doing. No gladiator who’s heard the stories about Drusus would ever volunteer to fight for him.
Calvus looks me up and down, his brow furrowing as he inspects my arms, one then the other. “These scars are . . .” He meets my eyes. “You’re left-handed, aren’t you?”
“I am.”
He grins. “Excellent. I’m sure Drusus will be doubly pleased with you.” The grin widens. “Perhaps I should have chosen you in the first place over that Phoenician. After all, a left-handed fighter like you belongs in the arena where he can make his lanista rich, yes?”
I resist the urge to avoid his eyes.
“You’ll be his left-handed moneymaker, and you’ll—” Calvus gives a quiet, bone-chilling laugh. “Well, I suppose in a way you’ll be my left hand, won’t you?”
“I suppose I will, Dominus,” I whisper.
Calvus puts his hand on my shoulder. The amusement leaves his expression. “Listen closely, gladiator. This is very important. The money you’re giving Drusus, the five hundred sestertii, is from the magistrate called Cassius. The same one who will be providing your auctoratus documents. Is that clear?”
My mouth goes dry as I nod.
“You will not mention me or our arrangement,” he says. “Not to anyone within the ludus under any circumstances. Understood?”
“Yes, Dominus.” I hesitate. “Calvus.”
“Be warned, Saevius. I do not tolerate treachery or dishonesty.” He leans in, lowering his voice so I’m certain no one but me and the gods can hear him, and he presses down hard on my shoulder. “Give me a single reason to believe you’re not doing precisely as I’ve ordered, or that you’ve breathed my name within the walls of the ludus, and I will see to it the magistrate asks Drusus if he received the full seven hundred sestertii. Am I understood?”
With much effort, I swallow. With even more, I nod. “Yes, Calvus.”
And silently, I beg the gods to send me back to Rome to fight in its Colosseum.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

EXCERPT: By A Thread

Title: By A Thread
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Allure
Format(s): Ebook


“More iced tea, sir?”

I smile up at the waitress. “Yes, thank you.”

As she walks away, I check the time on my phone. Six forty-five. Two minutes since the last time I checked.

Patience, Leon. Patience.

Yeah, right. I just want to get this evening over with because I’m pretty damn sure I know how it’s going to end.

I drum my fingers on the table and look out the window in search of a temporary distraction. The restaurant overlooks the bustling pavilion where the city’s most touristy boardwalks intersect. One extends for miles along the beach in either direction, the other bisects Old Towne, and they meet here amidst the trinket shops and funnel cake stands.

It’s Saturday night and tourist season is in full swing, so the pavilion is packed. Naturally, every street performer in town is here. Steady streams of people throw coins and bills for magicians, mimes, and musicians, but most of them are crowded around two sorcerers who are trying like hell to outdo each other. One of the two is obviously a water sorcerer, and he waves and gestures as the contents of a small metal bucket at his feet rise up and twist and contort into different shapes. At one point, the water takes on the form of a child standing in front of it, mimicking her movements and facial expressions to her great delight.

The sun is sinking behind the ocean, though, and the fading daylight gives the water sorcerer’s rival a distinct edge, making his fire tricks appear brighter and more impressive by the minute. He stands on top of an overturned milk crate, and foot-tall flames dance on his upturned palms, taking beautifully human forms and moving in time with the faint music that’s made its way from one of the musicians to my ears.

Suddenly, the fiery dancers disappear in a puff of smoke, and the water sorcerer throws his head back and laughs as the drenched fire sorcerer glares at him over the heads of the roaring crowd. Undeterred, the fire sorcerer conjures another flickering orange figure, and with a wave of his hand, sends it strutting across the cobbles toward his rival.

His rival, whose watery avatar has leapt from its bucket and is prepared to stand its ground. The two figures face off, circling each other like wildcats, and I have to wonder if the sorcerers are rivals after all. More like performers who’ve figured out exactly how to work a crowd together.

My gaze drifts from the battling avatars to the fire sorcerer. He’s smoking hot, and I don’t just mean his fingertips. He’s got a smile that’s probably attracting as many people as his magic, and he’s not wearing a shirt over his washboard abs, which is also almost certainly helping him draw in a crowd. They say sorcerers are dangerous in bed—something about losing control of their powers—but if I’m up against a body like that, I’ll take my chances.

I pull my gaze away and take a long drink from the iced tea that showed up while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m on a date, for crying out loud. Well, sort of. I glance at the shirtless sorcerer again.

Guess it doesn’t hurt to look. After all, I’m getting dumped in T-minus… T-minus…

I pick up my phone to check the time. Five minutes till seven.

I fold my hands on the table and look out the window again as I blow out a sharp breath. Andrew’s not late, but I’m impatient. As impatient as I was just before our first date, oddly enough, but for entirely different reasons this time.

It’s disappointing, I’ll admit that. Three months of e-mailing back and forth and chatting on the webcam, three dates with sizzling hot chemistry that was just about visible to the naked eye, one almost kiss, and now “can you meet me tonight?” and “we really need to talk” in that quiet “this is about to be over and we both know it” tone.

That sorcerer out in the pavilion is looking more tempting by the minute, with or without the danger of a concussion or a third degree burn. Or maybe I’ll go find the nearest willing body, non-magic or otherwise, for a one-night stand. It’s been six months, for God’s sake, and after I’ve invested this much time, excitement, and anticipation into things with Andrew, only to have it blow up in my face before even making it past a kiss? To hell with it.

I should’ve known when that kiss almost happened, but then didn’t. Right up until that moment in my car, I was sure things were going great. Spectacularly. I wasn’t in a hurry to get into bed, but in the back of my mind, going by the way we kept looking at each other and the things he kept doing to my pulse just by smiling at me, I knew the sex would be amazing when we got to it.

My heart sinks a little deeper. Who am I kidding, thinking I can leave after this inevitable conversation and go find a one-night stand? I want Andrew. Yes, I want to sleep with him—with a body like that and chemistry like this, who wouldn’t?—but it’s more than that. So much more.

Sighing, I take another drink. Well, better to end it now before we’ve gone there. At least then, when I’m banging my head against a wall wondering how I fucked this up and wishing I hadn’t gotten my hopes up, I won’t also be craving another go-around with him in bed. Cold comfort or something, I guess.

Outside, the pavilion is thick with people, some of them still, some of them in motion, but a subtle flicker of movement catches my eye. When I look, my heart skips in the same instant my stomach drops. I’ve known for a while I’m hooked on Andrew, but didn’t realize just how much until now, when I’m watching him work his way through the throngs of people, eyes down and hands in his pockets, to tell me it’s over.

I try to convince myself maybe he’s not really here to call it quits, but his posture doesn’t do much to help my argument. His shoulders are tightly bunched, his gait hurried but stiff, and when he looks up just before he starts up the restaurant’s front steps, his expression is blank. For someone who’s usually relaxed and quick to smile, that’s not promising.

My heart keeps beating faster and faster as he disappears from my view, and my mouth goes dry when he reappears across the restaurant from me. He zeros in on me in an instant, and a half-hearted smile flickers across his lips. I take a long drink as he makes his way from that end of the room to this one.

So here we are. This is it. This is where it ends.

God, Andrew, I’m going to miss you…

He offers a polite but forced smile. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I hope my own smile is half as convincing as his.

“Thanks for coming.” He slides into the bench opposite me. “Sorry I kind of dropped it on you at the last minute.”

“Don’t worry about it. Sounded like you wanted to do this sooner than later.”

He chews his lower lip and doesn’t look at me. “Yeah. The sooner the better.”

He doesn’t elaborate. I don’t even know what to say, and in spite of my eagerness to get this over with, I’m not so sure I want to encourage him to get started. So I just keep my mouth shut and surreptitiously watch him while the waitress drops off some ice water and gets his order for another drink.

The man is stunning. Seriously. His dark hair is just long enough in the back to tickle his collar and in the front to get in his eyes from time to time. From the beginning, it’s been more than a little tempting, more times than I can count, to brush that unruly fringe out of his face and tuck it behind his ear, just because it’d be an excuse to touch him. I’m the kind of man who can and does proposition someone for sex halfway through a first date, but with Andrew, I haven’t been as aggressive. I haven’t been aggressive at all, by my standards or anyone else’s. When his hair falls into his eyes, I let him take care of it with a casual swipe of his slender fingers—he’s fine-boned and slim, more so than most guys I usually date, and it’s sexy as hell—and never make a move myself.

“So.” He clears his throat and wraps both hands around his glass of ice water. “I, um, like I said, wanted to talk. There’s some things that…” He pauses, releasing a breath, and his shoulders slump as much as their visible tension will allow. “It’s hard to explain, and maybe I should have said something sooner, but I hope you understand this is…” Once again, he pauses, and he bites his lip as he drums his fingers rapidly on the condensation-covered glass.

“Whatever it is,” I say in spite of my dry mouth, “I’ll understand.”

“That’s easy to say now.” He doesn’t look at me. “But the thing is, we’ve known each other for a while. We’ve been out a few times, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I—”


He stops, and looks at me through his long lashes. Holy fuck, I love those blue eyes.

I fold my hands on the table and lean forward. “If you want to call time on this, I’ll understand.” No I won’t. God, I want you. “Just…say the word.”

“Call time?” He blinks and his spine straightens. “I…no, that’s not where I was going with this.”

“It isn’t?” I raise an eyebrow. “Because that’s what it sounds like.”

Andrew sighs and lowers his gaze. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intent. I just… I’ve had this conversation a few times, and apparently I still suck at it.”

This isn’t what I expected. Not at all. “Well, just say what’s on your mind, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“Okay, well.” He drums his fingers on the table.

Right then, the waitress reappears with his soda—Coke, though I’m surprised he didn’t order something much stronger—and a moment later, she’s gone, leaving us to our progressively less comfortable, not to mention predictable, conversation.

“Just give it a go,” I say. “Whatever it is.”

Andrew takes a long drink. Then a deep breath. “Look, I’m really attracted you.” He’s almost whispering now. “Like, really attracted.”

I’m not sure whether to be flattered by the comment or even more worried about what’s coming next.

He goes on, “And especially after the other night, it’s kind of hard to ignore the direction this is…” He meets my eyes briefly, but drops his gaze. “Where this is going.”

“We don’t have to go there,” I say quickly. “Not yet. If you’re not ready.”

With a dry laugh, he sits back. “It’s not quite that simple.”

“What do you mean?”

He keeps his gaze down. His hands are in his lap, and from the subtle movement of his upper arms, I’m guessing he’s wringing his hands. The tension in his shoulders is more pronounced now, working its way into the sides of his neck.

“Whatever it is,” I say, “just say it. No sense beating around—”

I’m a sorcerer.”

My lips part. “I beg your pardon?”

He leans forward again, rests an elbow on the table, and lowers his head as he scratches the back of his neck. “I’m a sorcerer.”

Okay, that wasn’t what I expected. Holy shit.

My eyes dart toward the pair still battling it out with their magic creations out in the pavilion. Andrew’s one of them?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

EXCERPT: All The King's Horses

Title: All The King's Horses
Author: Lauren Gallagher
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Formats: Ebook, Paperback (late 2013)


I didn’t go to my husband’s funeral.

It was a closed-casket service, so there’d be no closure from seeing him one last time. I didn’t care to see him again anyway, closure or no. All the tearful sentiments—he was so young, it was so tragic, he was such a wonderful man—would have sent me right into the ground with him. I couldn’t stomach the thought of one more person patting my shoulder and telling me how sorry they were, how horrible it must be for me, and to call if I needed anything at all.

The night before they buried Sam, I quietly packed the few things I couldn’t live without into my truck. Whatever belongings didn’t fit, I left in the too big, too quiet house. The next day, at a little past noon and right around the time my family and friends were probably all dressed in black and filing into the church, I climbed into the cab and drove out of town without looking back.

I didn’t know where I was going.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. I had an address entered into my GPS. I had a job lined up, a place to stay, a destination in mind. But beyond that? I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything anymore except that I needed to get far, far from here so I could collect my thoughts and…and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t even say I needed to sort out my feelings, because I didn’t feel anything. No pain. No grief. No anger. Nothing but the restlessness reverberating through me and telling me to just get the hell out of here.

So I drove.

I was forty-eight miles from home and two from the county line when my cell phone rang. If the caller ID had showed any other name, I’d have ignored it, but since it was my older sister, I answered.

Cringing, I said, “Hey.”

“Honey, where are you?” Mariah asked in a hushed whisper. Voices murmured in the background as she added, “The service is starting any minute.”

The service. My husband’s memorial service. There should have been a lump in my throat or something, maybe even some hot, seething anger, but I felt absolutely nothing. Even the makeup-concealed mark on my face wasn’t throbbing anymore.

“I’m not coming.” Ugh. Could I have sounded any more like a petulant brat? Stomp, stomp, I’m not coming, and you can’t make me. As if it really was that simple or that petty.

“You’re not coming?” Anyone else would have read me the riot act, but Mariah just lowered her voice a little more and asked, “Why not?”


She was quiet for a moment. I thought she might be chewing on what I’d said, thinking of a response, but soft movement on the other end suggested she was relocating to someplace where fewer people might overhear. The voices in the background quieted, and Mariah said, “What’s going on?”

“I can’t do it,” I said. “Look, there’s a lot I can’t explain right now. I just, I need to get away from…everything. Clear my head, I guess.”

“Get away? Meaning…?”

“Meaning I’m—” I paused. “I’m leaving, actually.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need…” I glanced at the rearview, meeting my own eyes for a second before I focused on the road ahead. “I just need to go away. Get myself back together.”

“Okay, but where?

I gnawed my lower lip. I really didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want any of them to try to find me. I just needed to be as alone as I could get for a while. Taking a deep breath, I held the steering wheel tighter. “Just don’t worry about me, okay?”

“You know I will.”

Leaving Snohomish County. The sign whipped past my truck, and I slowly exhaled.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“You’re blowing town while we’re burying your husband.” Mariah’s voice was gentle but insistent. “That’s not fine, Amy. That’s going off the deep end.”

“Well, maybe that’s what I need to do, then,” I said quietly. “Maybe I need to go off the deep end.”

My sister was silent for a long moment. “When you get a chance,” she said finally, “could you at least e-mail me and let me know where you’re at with the horses on your training schedule? So I can work with them for you?”

Guilt twisted under my ribs. I’d been in such a hurry to get away, I hadn’t thought about everything else I was leaving behind. “Oh, man, I’m sorry, Mariah. I’m leaving you in a lurch, aren’t I?”

It’s not too late. I can turn around. Hardly anyone even knows I’m gone yet. King’s Ranch probably won’t have any trouble replacing me. Farmhands are a dime a dozen.

“Amy. Honey.” Mariah’s voice was the closest it could be to a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “If this is what you need to do, then I’ll hold down the fort while you’re gone. I’ll bring in an extra pair of hands if I have to, but you just go. We’ll all be here when you come back.”

When I come back.

Am I coming back?

I swallowed. It hadn’t even occurred to me before this point how long I might be gone, or if I might go back at all.

But all I said was, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she said. “What should I tell people?”

I gritted my teeth. “Just tell them I’m okay, and I need some time to deal with everything.”

“How much of that is true?”

I rested my elbow beneath the window and rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, the last part at least.”

“That’s what I figured.” Mariah sighed. “Take care of yourself, all right?”

“I will.”

“And you can call me any time. You know that.”

“Thanks.” I paused. “You can call me too. I’ll still have my phone.”

“I’m sure I will,” she said. “I have to go. The service is about to start.”

I exhaled. So I was really doing this. My husband’s funeral was starting, and I was really driving seventy-five miles an hour in the opposite direction and wondering if I could possibly get away any faster.

“Okay,” I said, gripping the steering wheel tighter as I pressed down on the accelerator. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Aside from the engine and the hum of the road beneath my tires, the truck’s cab was hollow and silent without my sister’s voice. I flipped on the radio, but the music just annoyed me, so I went back to silence.

And I kept driving.

My chest ached with guilt. Part of me wished I could think that ache away, but part of me was admittedly glad to feel something for the first time since long before Sam died, even if it was just guilt that I’d left my oppressively huge workload in my sister’s lap. Maybe I should have done this sooner. While he was still alive and could have dealt with the fallout of me leaving.

Yeah, right. I wouldn’t have made it past the end of the driveway.

But Sam couldn’t stop me today, and I would find a way to make this up to Mariah, so I drove, and I kept on driving. Mile after mile, city after city, over the ear-popping mountain pass and down into the desert scrubland while the familiar evergreen trees faded in the rearview. An off-ramp took me from the interstate to a rural highway, and that highway wound between cornfields, wheat fields and dry brown hills that lounged across the landscape like lazy Shar Pei dogs.

The highway narrowed, and the speed limit inched down from fifty-five to forty-five to thirty-five. It dipped into the twenties as I rolled through a no-name town with dusty pickups parked along the sidewalks in front of places with names like “Mom’s Diner” and “Aunt Edna’s Groceries.” On the other edge of town—the first edge still being visible in my rearview—the speed limit picked up to forty-five again, and I continued weaving and winding my way past the fields and hills.

With every mile, I was less and less sure about this. It wasn’t like me to just drop everything and run, especially without saying a word to anyone until the wheels were already in motion. The more unfamiliar scenery I passed, the more real it all became, and this strange brand of newfound freedom became almost suffocating in its uncertainty.

But I couldn’t turn back. If I’d thought this through before I left, I’d have talked myself out of it, and now that I’d come this far, pride wouldn’t let me face my family yet, not after they’d probably heard what was going on. What I was doing. How badly I was losing my mind.

And anyway, I told myself, I had a job waiting for me out here. A menial one in which I was very, very replaceable, but still one I’d committed to start tomorrow. If I decided to go back to the world I’d just left--and the job to which I should have been way more committed—fine, but not at the last second. I’d left enough people high and dry this week.

And I had to do this. One more second within those familiar walls and fences and I’d have gone even more insane than I was apparently going right now.

Of all things that could have offered me some kind of comfort today, I found relief in the moment I turned off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. When my back tires bumped from the lip of asphalt onto the rough, pothole-littered gravel, I rolled my shoulders like a huge weight had been lifted off them.

I was no longer connected to the never-ending knot of pavement that tangled and twisted together in one giant rat’s nest of streets and highways. I was no longer tied to the loops and straightaways and exits and off-ramps that, no matter how far I’d driven, always bound me to that one blood-stained intersection. As dust kicked up from my tires and I navigated around potholes the size of grain buckets, that intersection no longer haunted my rearview mirror.

I wasn’t free. Not yet. But I was a mile closer to it.

“Next left,” my GPS announced, and I took the turn.

I was in one of the river valleys now, and the dirt road took me past more fields and—thank God—some forested areas. Not as thick and green as on the other side of the state, but not quite so desolate and scrubby as every uncultivated stretch I’d seen for the last few hours. Off and on, between small clusters of trees, white fences surrounded herds of cattle. Then horses. Then cattle again.

And finally, long after the sun had settled behind the distant mountains, I turned down a long, dusty driveway and drove under an arching sign that read King’s Ranch. Twin fences lined the driveway and guided me to the heart of the ranch, where two log houses and a large barn with pale aluminum sides stood in front of a covered arena.

I pulled up beside the barn. When I turned off my headlights, the milky glow of a few mercury vapor lamps kept the night from closing in.

As I got out of the truck, a light came on behind me, and I turned around as an older gentleman in dusty jeans and a cowboy hat stepped off the front porch of the larger house.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked, Texas dripping off every syllable.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m Amy Dover.”

He stopped, straightening like I’d just shocked the hell out of him. “Are you, now?”

“I am.”

“Well. How about that.” He continued toward me and extended his hand. “I’m John King.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “We spoke via e-mail.”

He smiled, the weathered corners of his eyes crinkling. “We did. Now, Dustin owns the place—I’m mostly retired now—but I can show you where you’ll be staying.”

“Is Dustin here?” I asked as we started walking across the gravel driveway.

“Not tonight,” John said. “He’s down in Oregon picking up a couple new horses. I imagine he’ll be home around noon tomorrow, so that ought to give you some time to settle in.”
In spite of the voice in my head that decided—again—to question everything I was doing, I managed a smile. “Sounds good.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Ms. Dover,” he said. “We’ve been hurtin’ since the last hand left, especially with Dustin being away this past week.” He gestured at himself. “These old bones can’t do all this nonsense anymore, I’ll tell ya.”

“Glad to help,” I said.

You have no idea how much you and Dustin are saving my sanity right now…

John led me across the driveway to one of the two log houses. The one he’d come out of a moment ago was two-story, while the one he led me toward was single-story but wider than the other. Almost like two small ranch-style houses pressed up against each other. When I’d agreed to take this job as a live-in farmhand, I’d expected a tiny apartment, maybe a converted loft over the barn or a mother-in-law suite beside the house, but, by the looks of it, this was a full-size duplex.

As we walked onto the porch, John said, “Dustin lives on that side.” He gestured at the door on the far right of the wide porch. As he started toward the left side, he said, “And this side is yours.”

“Interesting setup,” I said.

“Well, we built the duplex so the kids had places to stay,” he said. “It was cheaper, you see, building one instead of two. But our daughter decided she didn’t want to stay on the farm, so we decided to use her half for farmhands. Ain’t a lot of other places for someone to live around here, and it meant we didn’t have to convert the barn office into an apartment, so it worked out nicely.”

He pushed open the door and made an “after you” gesture.

I went inside and looked around.

The cabin was small but cozy. It was pleasantly decorated in a country style that matched the old, probably antique furniture. From what I’d heard about Eastern Washington’s winters, I had a feeling that wood-burning stove would come in handy in a few months.

Not that I planned to be here that long. I didn’t think so, anyway.

“I hope this will do for ya.” John took off his weathered old cowboy hat as he stepped inside. “Ain’t exactly a New York penthouse, but it’s what we’ve got.”

“It’s fine.” I took in my surroundings. In fact, I liked the tiny place. It was small, and it was—more or less—mine. After sharing a house that was simultaneously way too big for two people and entirely too small for Sam and me, this was perfect. Turning to John, I said, “It’ll be just fine. Thank you.”

“Good, good.” He put on his hat and inched toward the door. “Well, I’ll let you get settled in. In the morning, I can show you around the farm.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He went back up to the main house while I grabbed a few things out of the truck. Not a whole lot—I hadn’t brought much anyway—but just the bare minimum to tide me over until tomorrow. Then I went into the tiny, warmly decorated bedroom that was mine for the foreseeable future.

Just the sight of the queen-size bed made me doubly aware of how exhausted I was. Every muscle ached, and my eyes were heavy like I’d just come home from a grueling, weeklong competition. Time to get some sleep. I could deal with thinking and all of that when the sun came up.

I went into the bathroom and, without looking in the narrow mirror above the sink, washed the concealer off my face. It was only when the water swirling down the drain was clear, devoid of even a single trace of color, that I forced myself to look at my reflection.

The bruise had faded, but not by much. The edges had expanded a little, radiating out from the darker center that covered my cheekbone, and the farther they reached down my cheek and up to my eye, the lighter they were. At least it was more of a sickly blue-green today rather than the deep, furious purple it had been the morning after. Another week or so of applying and reapplying concealer—wonderful when I’d be working outside in dusty summer heat—and it would be gone.

My gaze drifted from the bruise to the leather string suspended around my neck and dipping beneath my collar. Swallowing hard, I reached up and pulled it out from under my shirt, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when my gold wedding band caught the light from the single bulb above the mirror. The heavy ball of lead that had taken up residence in my stomach sank a little deeper, and I let my gaze flick back and forth from the ring to the mark on my face.

One would go away on its own. The other, only when I took the initiative and took the damn thing off. And left it off this time.

Sighing, I let the ring drop onto my chest, wondering how a band that thin could be so heavy. One of these days, I’d take it off. Maybe even get rid of it.

But tonight, I just… I couldn’t. Not now. It was too soon.

Too soon? I should have taken this thing off years ago.

Maybe so, but I had my limits. Skipping town and blowing off Sam’s funeral pushed those limits, but taking off the ring? I wasn’t ready for that yet.

I closed my hand around the ring, the metal cool against my skin and the guilt hot in my otherwise numb chest. Closing my eyes, I could still hear the rumble of his motorcycle fading into the distance. I could still taste the venomous whispered prayer that it would be the last time I heard that sound, that he really wasn’t coming back this time.

Guess you should be careful what you wish for.