Book Blitz & Excerpt: Karma’s Kiss + Giveaway

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Karma’s Kiss by M.C. Roth

General Release Date: 26th April 2022

Word Count: 63,879
Book Length: NOVEL
Pages: 230

Genres:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
ANGELS AND DEMONS
CONTEMPORARY
EROTIC ROMANCE
GAY
GLBTQI
PARANORMAL
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE
WERESHIFTERS

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Book Description


Karma isn’t the worst curse to have after all.

Zack is running from his family, his past and a curse that has tainted his life since childhood. Fleeing his temporary home for the sake of his ex-boyfriend, Zack becomes stranded in a snow drift in the middle of nowhere, wearing nothing more than a spring jacket and an old pair of running shoes. Resigning himself to freezing to death, he is rescued by Eric, an irresistible man who treads the line between kindness and discourtesy.

Zack quickly realises that Eric’s home is a different kind of frozen hell. There is no electricity in the tiny one-room cabin, no running water and definitely no Wi-Fi.

But Eric is more than just a man. He is the only one who seems to be immune to Zack’s curse, and he has secrets of his own. Eric may be more dangerous than anything Zack has ever seen before.

Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of violence and the death of a secondary character.

Excerpt

“No. No. No,” said Zack as he pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The ancient car responded sluggishly, a full second passing before the engine vibrated with a purr that made his foot go numb. The bald tyres spun, trapped in a sheet of ice and snow that coated the road and the lone vehicle.

The storm sagged against the windshield as the wipers tried lethargically to keep up, leaving large, frosted streaks with every swipe. With each pass, the ice crystals grew denser, coating the wipers with budding globs of ice.

Another burst of wind battered the side of the car, fluttering against the door and buffeting the tiny cracks in the vehicle. A trickle of cold air brushed against his chilled knuckles, and a shiver cascaded though his body.

The vehicle lurched closer to the ditch that had disappeared into the blizzard’s cloud. The tyres caught, edging sideways in a frozen rut. He jerked at the steering wheel, but there was no response as he was buried deeper in the drifts.

Zack’s heart pounded as he lost control of the wheel and the engine sputtered. But he barely noticed as the car lurched into a stall or as the air got even colder through the flimsy heating vents. The storm was the furthest thing from his mind.

It had happened again. And, of course, it had chosen the moment when the biggest snowstorm of the decade was blowing its way across the lakes. The radar had probably gone from red to purple then black while he’d driven with no destination in mind.

The roads had been relatively clear a few hours before, when he had fled to his car, putting it straight into second gear before he even had his seat belt on. He had hit the highway, flipping a virtual coin to choose the exit he’d take before the heavy flakes had started drifting down from the grey sky.

He shuddered. His darkness—his curse—the thing had haunted him for as long as he could remember… It always seemed to choose the worst moments to rear its ugly, jealous head. This had to be one of the top five of all time, though.

He had tried to keep moving. He’d tried to leave before he could put anyone else at risk.

But he’d been sucked in by another pair of sweet blue eyes and a soft voice that had promised him a good night. That night had turned into a stream of great weeks and gentle touches that had him coming more consistently than he ever had.

The sex had been fantastic, if not a little bit soft, more often ending in his mouth or his hand—and not somewhere better, tighter and hotter. His nights hadn’t been cold in an empty hotel bed or on a couch that he had claimed during a stranger’s party. He had started to look forwards to waking up in the morning and seeing someone other than himself in his bed.

Then it had all gone wrong. One word and a spurned rejection, and his past had caught up with him with the force of a starving tiger. He’d staggered as he’d felt the blood drain from his face.

He had fled before anything could happen to the man who he had almost started to like. If he’d had the opportunity, he could have developed full-blown feelings, which were more dangerous than his curse.

He’d grabbed everything in sight that belonged to him, leaving more behind than he’d taken. His socks and underwear were lost beneath the bed and in the basket of laundry, but he hadn’t had the time to retrieve them. They weren’t the worst things that he’d ever left behind.

He’d had run to his ancient Honda, breathing hard by the time he had tugged the door open. As he’d sped away, he’d left another chunk of his past behind him, the sweet memories tainted by his bitter curse. The traffic had steadily thinned, until he was the only car in the midst of a forest that seconded as a snowy hell.

His trusty Honda was only five years younger than him and had more problems than he did, which was saying a lot. Its most recent issue was that it apparently couldn’t drive through more than two centimetres of fresh snow.

He fumbled with the key, glancing out into the bleak stretch of swirling snow as he tried to start the engine yet again. Stomping on the gas, he waited for the RPMs to climb into the red zone before popping the clutch and putting the car directly into second gear. First gear didn’t exactly work, and on ice, it was its own death trap.

There was a shuddering jerk that had relief flooding his gut, until the car rocked once and stalled back into silence. The dials dropped and the fuzzy radio station faded until the barest hint of the country song vanished under the sound of the wind.

“Shit,” he said as he slammed his hand against the steering wheel. It shuddered, barely holding on to its rigging after his repeated abuse. He could imagine the wheel finally tumbling off as he merged lanes on a highway doing one-hundred-and-thirty-five kilometres per hour. I’m lucky like that.

His palm ached from the hit and the cold that was steadily seeping into the car, but it didn’t stop him from slamming the wheel a second time. His thumb caught the edge of the horn, but the blaring sound was swept away on the wind.

The temperature inside the car noticeably dropped another few degrees, and his breath turned into a misty fog that coated everything it touched. The car’s heater was lukewarm at best, and without a working defrost, ice had started to crust on even the inside of the windshield.

He turned the key again as he popped the car back into neutral and pushed the clutch to the floor. He shivered as another gust of wind cut into the Honda. His thin jacket was best suited for balmy fall days, but it was the only one that had been in sight as he’d scrambled to leave. His toes were numb in his sneakers, and his hands? Well, he was afraid to look at them, because he wouldn’t be surprised if a few fingers were already missing. His gloves had been one of the many things that he had left behind, and his hands had been aching since the snow had started.

The car key turned under his hand, jingling with the other attached keys and mementos that he had picked up on his travels. There was a tiny metal sandal that he’d picked up in a beach town and an iron sun from a gift shop that he’d found in the middle of nowhere. The rest were worn, their edges smooth from their constant motion. He kept them close, so he wouldn’t have to look back and remember.

The key turned, with the promise of escape and a hint of heat. Silence. Not even a putter from the flooded engine. His gut churned as a shiver racked his body. It was so freaking cold, and according to the last clear announcement on the radio, the storm was just getting started.

He grappled with the horn, pushing the button as hard as he could. There had to be someone close by who would come to his rescue if they heard him honking. People in the city might not have looked twice, but he was pretty far into the wilderness, on the only road that probably ever saw a plough in winter. People were different out here—lonelier.

The button clicked under his palm as the battery finally gave out. The same battery had lasted him twenty years, so, of course, it would choose to fail him when he was about to lose his toes.

Zack took a shuddering breath as his vision blurred and his heart sank. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to keep the warmth from escaping. Perhaps everything was finally catching up with him. Freezing to death wouldn’t be the worst way to go. He’d seen worse before—so much worse. His stomach clenched as memories fluttered to the surface of his mind. He tried to push them away before he could retch.

“Look at the snow. Just look at the snow,” he said, holding himself tighter as he tried to focus on an individual flake in the whirling mass—anything to leave the flashes of his past behind.

Beyond the window he could see bits of the forest through the gaps in the gathering ice on the windshield. The road was nearly invisible, with no tyre tracks except his own behind him. Even those were almost gone now.

A green bough fluttered in the wind, dumping its heavy load onto the ground below it. A bird fluttered from the branch, battling against the wind as it took off. For a moment, it looked like it would lose the fight and be tossed into the nearest tree trunk. It pumped its wings faster, finally triumphing over the storm.

There were no hydro lines along the road or lamp posts that would guide a traveller along at night. It was a tourist’s nightmare. He cursed himself, wondering if he should’ve taken the other fork in the road that had probably led along a path that was closer to the city.

A smudge of colour caught his eye as it flashed along the very edge of the trees. The trunks grew close together, dark and foreboding within the mass, and their limbs danced and swayed in the wind, dumping the snow back to the earth with each pass. There was so much movement that he wondered if he had imagined the blur.

He squinted and leaned closer to the window, trying to make sense of it through the fluttering snow. It could have been a deer. He’d already seen a few along the way, looking ready to jump out at his car and double his insurance. Or it could have been a bear, given how far he’d come, although he’d only ever seen them on television. The dark beacon had looked too small to be the creature he’d seen on Planet Earth.

He spotted it again as the wind stilled and the blizzard cleared for a moment. It moved through the snow with a fluid grace that could only belong to an animal who could survive a harsh winter. Nothing battered or beaten lived in this cold, and no predator could thrive without hunting in the perpetual storm that was February.

It grew closer with every loping step, until it seemed larger than what he imagined a bear would be. It was fast, too, cutting through the drifts as if it weighed nothing. Zack knew how hard it was to walk through snow that deep, which was why he usually avoided it at all costs. That, and he really didn’t want to get his too-tight jeans wet.

Zack scrubbed the inside of the window with his nails, bits of ice stinging his numb fingertips. His breath frosted it over again, until everything blurred.

It could have been a dog with how dark the colouring was, but he’d never seen a dog that big. A bear would definitely make more sense, but according to the television, bears hibernated in the winter.

The ice on the window thickened into an opaque crystal as he pressed his forehead against it, desperate to see what was coming. It was running at a pace that was hardly possible over the covered ground, gliding over the snow without seeming to disturb it at all.

A bubble of fear simmered in his gut as he pictured a bear breaking through his window with its massive, clawed paws. He was small enough that he wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight, but there was still enough meat on him to make a decent meal, he supposed.

He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to try to ground himself. The wind around him paused, the car going suddenly still and silent. He snapped his eyes back open, looking through the tiny gaps from his fingertips. There was nothing but the dark tree trunks capped with pure white.

The seat creaked as he freed himself from the seatbelt and lifted himself to his knees, pressing against a strip of clear glass. He blinked, rubbing his eyes to remove the imagined fog, but nothing appeared. The snow was undisturbed, except for the partially covered ruts from his own tyres. There were no footprints, and no animal was out in the wind.

I’m officially losing my mind.

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About the Author

M.C. Roth

M.C. Roth lives in Canada and loves every season, even the dreaded Canadian winter. She graduated with honours from the Associate Diploma Program in Veterinary Technology at the University of Guelph before choosing a different career path.

Between caring for her young son, spending time with her husband, and feeding treats to her menagerie of animals, she still spends every spare second devoted to her passion for writing.

She loves growing peppers that are hot enough to make grown men cry, but she doesn’t like spicy food herself. Her favourite thing, other than writing of course, is to find a quiet place in the wilderness and listen to the birds while dreaming about the gorgeous men in her head.

Find out more about M.C. Roth at her website.

Giveaway

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Book Blitz & Excerpt: Snap Me Up + Giveaway

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Snap Me Up, by Landra Graf

Book 1 in the Full Throttle Cyborgs series

Word Count: 62,153
Book Length: NOVEL
Pages: 254

Genres:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
EROTIC ROMANCE
FANTASY
FUTURISTIC AND SCIENCE FICTION
ROMANCE
SCIENCE FICTION

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Book Description

For this mechanic, anything is fair game.

Snapper Rodriguez never met a woman or a racer he didn’t like, until Gina Morales shows up. She’s butting her head under every hood, moving his tools and plain annoying. He’d rather fall down a mine shaft and lose his other limb than put up with her any longer.

Gina Morales is still trying to figure out what it means to be human, and as the first AI with a body in existence, she’s eager to find her maker. A racing garage like Full Throttle seems like a great place to start, though the head mechanic is an ass and she can’t help but get involved when their latest racing engine fails.

When Snapper and Gina are forced to work together to create a new engine and steal parts from competing racing gangs, the thrill of the job and the close quarters bring unwanted attraction. Too bad Snapper still wants her gone and will do anything to make that happen, even promise her tastes of human connection that she’s never experienced before. As things heat up, the threat to Gina’s synthetic heart grows, along with her confusion. They’ll have to decide if love is worth the risk or if this is a finish line they can’t cross.

Reader advisory: This book contains references to theft, cyborgs, and the major injury of a minor character.


Excerpt

Wrench to the left to loosen. Wrench to the right to tighten. Gina Morales found the process interesting, like everything else human.

Who came up with the idea to tighten clockwise or loosen counterclockwise? Who came up with a clock?

Of course, she could answer these questions with her big AI brain, though completing the actions, experiencing them, meant far more than simply knowing.

A loud winding noise started at the opposite end of the bay and Gina didn’t even bother to look. No, she’d tried to tell that idiot Snapper the engine wouldn’t work, but he, like most male humans, believed he knew more than a woman did.

All right, that may be unfair. He believes he knows more than me. Stubborn through and through.

A small explosive blast erupted at the opposite end of the bay, the air wafting the scents of combustion and melting metal. Then the fire exhaust compression tanks hissed. This brought a different smell. Gina sniffed and got a good hint of ozone, crisp and clean, before the fans kicked in to clear out any possible toxic chemical reactions.

“Fuck!” Snapper’s exclamation brought a smile to her face.

Since the first day Gina had stepped into the Full Throttle mechanics bay, Snapper had acted suspicious and rude. Though she half admired his cautious nature, it got a little old when he questioned every move she made.

Sure, she was lying to his face, but that was for her safety and security. No one could know she was the first-ever synthetic. Her AI brain had once been the primary software component of a ship named after her, but she’d evolved, and six months prior had discovered a madman from Earth’s moon had worked with someone on Mars to create synthetic bodies. It was her chance to exceed her parameters and prove her worth to her creator.

Though becoming human had opened a whole new universe for her.

It’s all new.

Snapper swore again and threw something. Gina set her wrench down and leaned up, squaring her shoulders as she approached him.

“It wouldn’t have done that if you—”

“Don’t say it, Gina.” Snapper brought his hand up and massaged his temples, rubbing black slick all over his tan skin.

The dirt marring his face bothered her. The lack of attention to cleanliness—she itched to take care of it. Problem-solving was a natural reaction to her root programming, as it had been for more than twelve years.

“You have—”

He whirled around to face her, blue eyes blazing. “Are you finished with the engine tune-up on that hauler?”

A shit job he’d given her for daring to make a suggestion the last time. As an AI, she should have learned her lesson, and she had, but being human meant trying again. At least, Sampson had always told her that.

“I’m almost done. Just tightening the last few bolts.”

“Then maybe stick to it and let me worry about the engine.”

She took a deep breath. “I would be happy to, though you should know that if you added an extra row of plugs, it would be able to distribute the load more evenly.”

“You’re a racing engineer now, are you? Your skills were slip drives and trolling motors when you showed up. Best stick to haulers, drifters and ships, and leave the racers to us.”

Gina clenched her jaw. “Snapper—”

“Gina, how about you finish your assignment and let me deal with ’ol grumpy ass here.” The voice beside her belonged to Drag, the newly appointed leader of Frog Lick and the Full Throttle gang. This town and the gang had once belonged to the Smiths, but they were long gone now, moved on or arrested. What was left was a blend of Smiths, others from another gang called Macintosh and some stragglers from non-affiliated gangs who had earned a place with Full Throttle.

Drag had been the one to give her a chance, while his buddy Snapper wanted to give her a hard time. Where Drag was all blond hair, straight-cut and slicked-back, with a solid build and trimmed goatee, Snapper was dark, curly hair and untamed beard. Like a wild man fitting into the uncivilized stereotypes often used to describe Mars men on the Upper Planets.

“Aye, aye, cap…er, boss.” She caught herself but didn’t miss how Drag’s blond eyebrow raised a fraction.

Instead of doubling down with more words that might give herself away, or cause more questions, she pivoted on her foot and went right back to the hauler. Her wrench waited for her, and she grabbed it, though her curiosity couldn’t be helped. She’d always been more of a listener anyway, from her years possessing an inanimate object.

“I don’t like her, Drag.”

She wrenched with a little more force than planned, and the damn bolt squeaked. Her grip eased up as the conversation continued.

“You could at least hear her out. She might have a good idea or two.”

Gina liked Drag. Liked him a lot. He was logical, smart, thoughtful, and he was constantly attempting to improve the gang-town, in more ways than others did. Starting with equality for women and men… Prior to Drag taking over as gang leader, women weren’t allowed to work in the mechanics bay or any areas of ship building and mining.

Snapper growled. “Maybe, but I don’t have time for ideas right now. We needed this racer ready to start testing. We’re pushing it as things are. Now, I got nothing.”

“You got a body, just not an engine. It’s all right, we have time and you go back to the drawing board. We’ll get thoughts from others at the town meeting tonight. Many heads are better than one.”

Funny how Gina had tried to tell Snapper the same thing a couple of days ago and he’d shot her down. Drag, on the other hand, was able to get through. At least, Snapper’s weary sigh implied most of his fight was gone.

“Fine, I’ll be at the meeting, though I was hoping to skip it.”

“No,” Drag replied. “I need you there. You and Rune are my right hands. We need to show a united front, more than ever.”

Gina tightened the last bolt in place and slammed the engine cover down, doing her best to give the impression that she wasn’t hanging on every word…except the pair had gone silent. She glanced over and saw Snapper’s pensive expression. Those fingers were back to massaging engine grease into his skin.

She rubbed her own fingertips together. The presence of grease there made her stomach turn a bit. Dirt, grime—she’d been a ship, knew the feel of such things, yet even now she ached to clean her hands.

“They turned us down, didn’t they?”

Snapper’s question was met by Drag’s nod of agreement. Not good at all.

She gathered her tools and dropped them in the box against the wall. Another quick look—Drag and Snapper were now talking to their driver, Hemi. She took that moment to slip away to the sink and contemplate her next move.

The water and soap were a mash of odd sensations that she’d never gotten used to, though less overwhelming than the baths with the full immersion into the liquid. She’d almost frozen in fear the first time she’d cleaned herself, her experience limited to the ion showers on the ships. No water, no waste. Though here, everything was recycled, filtered and re-used.

Soapy suds were swept clean by droplets of liquid—the same liquid that powered humanity. Seventy percent of their bodies was composed of this life-giving nectar.

Gina dried her hands on a towel then took another peek around the corner—with Drag and Snapper sidetracked, she could log her progress on the hauler in the computer and potentially access the other files. It wouldn’t take long, and this was her best chance, while the system was unlocked and available.

She hadn’t dared let the machine log her as getting in after hours or attempting to erase the evidence. In other circumstances, a little light hacking might work, but one never knew when a tech might discover her digital fingerprints and cause her trouble.

Snapper’s attitude toward her increased her desire to take the risk. She was tired of waiting, taking it slow, per Sampson’s suggestion. Hell, Sampson didn’t even know she wanted to find her maker.

Maybe Sampson didn’t fix my morality and ethics subroutines from when I was hacked eight years ago.

She logged the information then let her fingers fly. Her eyes scanned everything as fast as she could. Access to the Smiths’ old files, the visitors, the mechanics, the software developers and ship builders… The name imprinted on her mind, Torrent, never appeared anywhere.

Clicking out of the last file took her back to the main screen.

“I see you watching him. Best not to get any ideas.” Snapper’s deep timbre washed over her, a low rumble like when she’d be caught in the edge of a current floating through space and trying to get her bearings.

She froze. “What do you mean?”

“You watching Drag, getting that admiring look in your eyes like he invented Marsanium or something.”

Turning slowly, Gina found little to no space between them. Two steps max, but they were eye-to-eye. The big difference between her and most of the other women in Frog Lick—they had to look up to him. Maybe she did intimidate him. Sampson had suggested as much on their last holo-call.

“He didn’t invent Marsanium. The discovery was made by Jangles McKinney in 2292.”

Snapper shook his head and muttered under his breath, “You’re just a little walking encyclopedia and I know that, Gina. It was a comparison.”

“A figurative method of speech? I’m afraid I don’t see the reference clearly as I don’t admire the invention of Marsanium, though I do admire Drag. He is a good leader.” Hopefully, complimenting his best friend would deflect him away from noticing her inability to react to his figurative language. Fatch.

Snapper shook his head. “What are you working on here?”

“Just updating the maintenance records on the hauler and listing the parts and supplies I used.” She crossed her arms behind her back and stood up as straight as possible, prepared to handle whatever attitude he responded with. She suspected more vitriol.

“A lot of open files to be logging basic information,” he replied with a frown.

“I forgot where things were.”

Snapper stepped closer. “Then allow me to show you again, though maybe you should spend less time reading books and memorizing facts about my planet and focus more on your job?”

Gina stood her ground. “I found everything, and I’ll do better. See you at the meeting?”

She could smell his sweat, mixed with a citrusy flavor that reminded her of the lime grove on the planet Eden. Sharp and bitter, much like him. Scents were another gift humans took for granted. She enjoyed the smell of new things, along with trying to determine which ones appealed to her.

This close she could also glimpse the hairs on his chin, as curly and wild as the ones on his head. Though they weren’t all the same color—dark brown, ginger, even a couple of gray strands graced his face. Her exploration of his features meandered on to the Grecian nose, a near Romanesque style like the old books of Earth displayed. Bluest eyes with a smattering of wrinkles around the edges…and the indention between his brows that grew more pronounced every time he was frustrated.

“Gina, why are you looking at me like that?”

She reached into her back pocket and pulled out the towel there. Every mechanic kept one, though she didn’t sweat like the others and rarely had a use for it. Now she reached up and rubbed the grease away from his temples, one by one.

He took in a sharp breath, almost a hiss. There a was creak and groan of metal at her side as he clenched his cyborg fist tightly. Another difference… He, like Drag and a couple of the others, was enhanced with cybernetic parts. While she possessed more strength than the average human, there was a good chance Snapper could give back as good as she gave. Another thing we have in common, but I can’t tell him that.

She froze, and slowly pulled her arm back. “There. Clean.”

Her fingers still tingled from the limited contact with his skin. So much sensation, three thousand touch receptors in a fingertip. How do you humans not go into overload from a fleeting touch?

Snapper growled, that indentation between his brows back again. “Next time, Gina, ask for permission before you touch someone.”

She dropped the cloth at his feet. “Excuse me?”

“Leave Drag alone too. He doesn’t need you trying to moon after him.”

“What does that mean? I don’t moon after anything. You’re implying a moon can move outside of its orbit?” She cocked her head to the side as he took a step back.

“And pick up that cloth.”

He walked off without answering her question, on top of treating her like some Mars adolescent or a cleaning robot. She wasn’t a damn robot anymore, and high time she showed him, too.

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About the Author

Landra Graf

Landra Graf consumes at least one book a day, and has always been a sucker for stories where true love conquers all. She believes in the power of the written word, and the joy such words can bring. In between spending time with her family and having book adventures, she writes romance with the goal of giving everyone, fictional or not, their own happily ever after.

You can visit Landra’s website here, find her Amazon author page here and follow her on Pinterest here.


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Book Blitz & Excerpt: Queen of Shadows + Giveaway

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Queen of Shadows by Erin Dulin & Britt Cooper

Word Count: 85,689
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
Pages: 334

GENRES:

ACTION AND ADVENTURE
CLEAN AND WHOLESOME
FANTASY
FANTASY AND FAIRYTALES
ROMANCE
YOUNG ADULT

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Book Description

Why be a princess when you can rule the shadows?

Rejecting the senseless demands of her wicked stepmother, Ella of Locksley shares her family’s abundance with the people of her land. Yet, the desperation of her community has only begun.

When the nation of Llundyn is brutally attacked, Princes Ric and Johan begin to fight for their right to rule, leaving the kingdom’s very heart to hang in the balance as subversive forces emerge. Taxation drives the citizenry toward hopelessness, with the absence of leadership taking its toll.

Striking out on her own, Ella takes up the nation’s cause, making a name for herself as the infamous Hood, and leads her cunning crew, stealing from the rich to provide for the poor. But the return of the rightful heir, along with a forbidden romance, changes everything—with artifice and betrayal leading to an unlikely alliance that unites prince and thieves.

The passion and true love of a king leave Ella torn between duty and loyalty when, at the stroke of midnight, her identity is exposed. She’ll face the ultimate choice—enduring as the Hood or sacrificing it all for the ones she loves.

Reader advisory: This book contains some scenes of violence, a maiming and a death.

Excerpt

Fitful cries from the Carvers’ infant son pierced the silence, cleaving away Ella’s remaining shreds of calm. Trekking through the village was a dubious task on the most temperate of evenings. Doing so in the biting gales of waning wintertide was sheer idiocy, but she had little choice.

Ella tugged the hood of her cloak, attempting to keep it in place atop her head. The wind swirling around her had other ideas, whipping her mantle with vicious ferocity and nearly knocking her onto her backside as she crouched beneath a narrow window. She gripped the rotting sill, cursing under her breath before digging her heels into the frozen earth.

“Be grateful.” Much met her gaze, his eyes alight with suppressed mirth as he observed her predicament. “The weather should provide us a little more time.”

It was true. Ella glanced skyward, where the silvery haze lingering above conveniently veiled the moonlight. “Would that it could also grant us more provisions to share,” she whispered as Much tossed a small bag of grain in her direction. She wedged it neatly between the pile of cordwood and the decaying shingles sheathing the exterior, the burlap sack catching on the splintered timbers of the ramshackle cottage. “Another?” She held out a gloved palm expectantly.

“We cannot spare it.” Much’s words were but a breath, born both of necessity as well as grief. “If we double their portion, we’ll leave another family with nothing.”

Ella rose, making her way toward Much with a muted stride. “I filched an extra sack of grain from the lovely Lady Margaret before we set out.” She loosed the pouch from her horse, Monroe, with nimble fingers. “The Carvers will put it to far better use. They have five children now, you know.”

“Indeed.” Much folded his arms across his chest for warmth. “But Lady Margaret is apt to skin you alive if she catches you.”

“Tosh.” Ella waved his concern away with a dramatic sweep of her hand. “My stepmother would never sully herself over the likes of me. Doubtless, she’ll task you with that burden in her stead.” She grinned, waggling her eyebrows in amusement.

Much groaned. “You are as delightfully morbid as ever.”

Ella ignored him as she scurried toward the shanty for a second time, pairing the modest sack of grain with its twin nestled beside the kindling. The bags were always well hidden from passersby so as not to be stolen but quickly found by the tenants seeking firewood for their hearth. “It shouldn’t make any difference,” she groused, mounting her horse as Much followed suit. “It all belongs to me.”

“Ah, if only, Lady Locksley. It shall be yet another two years, for until the age of—”

“Twenty, I know. I know.” Ella sighed. It was an inconvenient fact she wished desperately to change. Thus far, her finest efforts in evading the ill-conceived lineal law of Llundyn included skulking through her hamlet in the wee hours before dawn, distributing food from her manor.

In the simplest of terms, she was stealing from herself, though with great care so as not to be discovered by her insufferable stepmother—the rightful heir of her lands and fortunes until she was finally of age.

Ella was discreet in her thieving endeavors, pinching items that would not be missed. It didn’t hurt that Cooke willingly turned a blind eye. And, as luck would have it, Lady Margaret wasn’t much for kitchen duty. It was a task she viewed as too menial for a woman of her stratum, even if she had only managed to achieve her status via a wholly undeserved union with Ella’s father.

Heavens, how she missed him, God rest his soul.

“Where’s the good in my title if I’m unable to use my station? I’m a member of the gentry with no more authority than that of an entitled rat.” Ella urged her mount toward their next destination, gritting her teeth against the brisk air as her horse picked up speed. Plucking an arrow from the quiver on her shoulder, she turned, aiming at the weather-worn door behind her, her drawn bow taut. Her bolt found its mark, despite Monroe’s bounding gait, announcing the presence of a delivery—the handmade arrow a telltale sign of her brief visit.

Much scoffed. “Nonsense. A rat would never share the spoils of its domain as you have. Neither would it have your impeccable aim.”

Ella glanced at Much, expecting to see him smiling as he often did when he teased her, but his handsome face was surprisingly austere.

No. There was no humor to be found in these circumstances.

Two years of poor, drought-riddled harvests had taken their toll on the kingdom of Llundyn. The dearth of crops had failed to significantly affect the nobility, of course, with many a lord and lady inclined to take advantage of the bountiful imports from neighboring realms. But the paltry yield was nothing short of devastating for the commoners who had little coin to spare. Many had begun to exhibit its brutality outwardly, the sharp planes of their faces and bone-thin frames a startling illustration of the land’s insufficiency.

Yet wealth poured into Locksley in the form of generous taxes, collected by Lady Margaret from the tenants surrounding the estate. As residents of the Locksley lands, they paid their due and worked the countryside in addition to their regular employment in the borough of Coventry, some five miles south of the manor.

Shame grieved Ella’s conscience as she observed the growing disparity, convicting her of something far worse than her newly established hobby of larceny.

Abundance.

Attempting to shed her sense of guilt was worthless. It merely required action. Thievery paled in comparison to the atrocity of starvation and poverty. And, as far as Ella was concerned, it wasn’t truly theft if she were merely pilfering from herself.

Much’s eagerness to be complicit in her scheming had been all the sanction she’d needed. She’d considered him the more reasonable of the two of them for as long as she’d known him. If he could rationalize the madness in her subterfuge…well, then perhaps it wasn’t madness at all.

As an orphan of some four years now, Much was far from his natural element. His father had been a man of the sea, captain of the king’s navy, his young son serving as a boatswain under his command and following in his footsteps. But his untimely demise had left his widow and son at the beneficence of the kingdom.

Ella’s father, Robin, had taken them on, providing steady work until fever had suddenly taken him away, with Much’s mother following quickly behind. The staggering loss had left Much and Ella reeling, grappling for some fragment of hope, an element of security—qualities that they’d had the great fortune of discovering in one another, bonding them at once in heartache as well as mercy.

Then, in a startling turn of events, tragedy had taken a turn for the positive. Lady Margaret had deigned to agree with Ella, who’d insisted that Much be permitted to continue his employment assisting the manor’s only carpenter. Whether due to genuine benevolence on her stepmother’s part or some peculiar sense of duty, Ella was never certain. Still, it was a small victory that she and Much readily welcomed.

“Blast this wretched wind,” Much grumbled, his complaint a swell of haze in the frigid air. “Remind me to wear several more layers of clothing for our next outing.”

“And you dare to deem me the foul-mouthed one between us?” Ella demanded, bringing about a reluctant smile from her surly partner in crime. “Perhaps you should reconsider.”

“Your words are well received, milady.” He raised his brows in satisfaction, well aware that his use of the highborn term was profane to Ella’s sensibilities. While he knew his place in Llundynien society, Ella had never treated him as lesser than an equal and always took his ribbing in good humor.

“Well, you’re a fiend, James Much. Cease your peevishness at once so we may complete the task at hand,” Ella intoned in a haughty impersonation of Lady Margaret, giggling with pleasure as his features crumpled in annoyance.

“Oh, but you do that too well, my friend.” Much laughed, shoving her playfully in the shoulder. “How many more deliveries?”

“Only two.” Ella patted the satchel that had been replete with various dried meats, grains and hard cheeses only hours ago. Now it was close to empty, bringing about a sobering reality. “How does it go so quickly? What we have will never suffice.”

“You’re doing your best. Your father would be proud,” Much said with reverence, warming Ella’s aching heart. “I don’t know of many nobles who give one thought to the peasants occupying their lands, and here you are, feeding yours from your own stores. It’s far better than doing nothing.”

“Yes, but also not nearly enough,” Ella agreed. “And besides, I thought the food didn’t belong to me yet.” Recalling Much’s previous assertions, she couldn’t help elbowing him in the ribs, nearly tumbling from her horse in the process.

“Careful!” Much hissed, grasping her arm and righting her before she slipped too far. “What good can you do for your hamlet if you meet your end beneath your horse’s hooves?”

“Worry not.” Ella resettled into her saddle as she adjusted her grip on the leather reins. “I do believe I’d live forever, simply to spite the lovely Lady Margaret.”

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About the Authors

Britt Cooper

Brittany has been a cosmetologist for over a decade, an occupation that continuously explores fresh avenues of creativity and beauty. She is a new mother, learning to balance the reality of what it means to be a mom, wife, stylist, and author. Reading has always been one of her passions and writing an endeavor she refuses to leave behind.

Follow Britt on Instagram and check out her website.

Erin Dulin

Erin is a wife and mother who loves spending time with family. She’s an enthusiastic fan of all things sports, experimental baker/chef, and amateur gamer in her free time. Writing has been a passion since her childhood, and while finding peace and quiet in which to write never comes easily, she knows it worth every ounce of chaos when the stories take shape.

Follow Erin on Instagram and check out her website.


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