Excerpt 1 – Protected By Him by Measha Stone
Taking a job at a bar owned by one of the most powerful Polish families in Chicago was the first mistake I made. The second was not quitting after the first poker game. Powerful men gambling away thousands of dollars with each hand tip damn good. So, I overlooked the guns. I pretended not to understand their conversations. I did everything I was paid to do: keep my eyes shut, my ears deaf, and my mouth closed.
But then I made my third mistake.
“Hey, watch it, Aleksandra!” Janusz Staszek chastised, shaking off the droplet of whiskey that landed on his hand as I put his glass down in front of him.
“Sorry,” I muttered. Maybe if he kept his hands from flying around while he was talking, he wouldn’t have hit my tray and spilled on himself. But not my place.
I moved around the table, handing out drinks and clearing away empty glasses.
“Bring more pretzels.” Henry Kozar said, pinching my ass when I turned away from him. I gritted my teeth. “Sure.”
“Henry.” Dmitri, one of the Staszek’s men leaning against the wall watching the game,spoke up. “Hands off if you want to keep them.” He spoke in Polish, still under the delusion I didn’t speak the language.
From the corner of my eye, I watched him point a long finger at Henry. Dmitri was the only one who put a stop to the guys who got handsy.
“You don’t allow us any fun, Dmitri. Look at her, at that ass, how can I not touch?” Henry answered in rapid Polish. I handed out the last drink and grabbed the empty bowl for the pretzels from the middle of the table
“She’s too young for you. What would she want with an old man like you!” Janusz laughed.
Feeling my cheeks start to heat, I hurried from the room. If they could see me blush, they’d know I understood them.
When I returned with a full basket of pretzels, Dmitri stopped me at the door. “Stay clear of Henry. He’s had too much to drink tonight.” He plucked a pretzel from the basket and popped it into his mouth.
“He always has too much to drink when he’s playing cards.” I looked at the table, around Dmitri’s hulking form. “I’ll be all right. But thanks.” I couldn’t quite bring my eyes up to meet his. Whenever I did, my cheeks burned red, and I was tired of the arrogant grin he’d flash when it happened.
I maneuvered around him and brought the pretzels to the table. Walking behind Janusz, I noticed his hand. Full house, ace high. Great hand. Curious, I made my way around the table as they placed bets and jibes at each other. Henry’s hand, a pair of sixes, wasn’t worth meeting the ante, but he threw in a hundred dollars, then more.
“See your hundred, Janusz, and raise a thousand.” He arched his back and grinned. I snorted. The idiot was trying to bluff these guys.
Janusz’s eyes darted up to my face, then looked back at Henry.
Oh shit! I moved back away from the table, hurrying to the corner table in the room to grab the ice bucket.
“I don’t believe you have anything. I see your thousand. Raise two more.” Janusz upped the bet. “I’m out.” The other four players fell away, but Henry stubbornly remained.
“You have that Staszek stubborn blood. Don’t know when to quit.” Henry laughed. “Fine. I’ll see you. Raise another three.”
“Henry, that’s all your cash.” Stephan, the man to his right, cautioned him.
Janusz looked up again at me, tapping his cards on the table. My nerves danced beneath his stare. Getting involved in the game would be a stupid thing to do, dangerous and stupid. So fucking stupid. My eyes swept the room. Finding Dmitri, I kept my gaze settled on his chest.
“Stop looking at her. Is she some sort of fortune teller?” Henry laughed, more uncomfortable this time, as he twisted in his seat to find me. I was against the wall, doing my damnedest to ignore the game. All I wanted to do was get out of the room and hide. Henry never took losing well, and that was when he was sober.
Dmitri moved to my side. His arm brushed against mine. A simple touch, but enough to calm the nerves ramping up again as Henry made his disastrous bet.
“Stay here, by me,” he said.
“I have to get ice.” I showed him the empty bucket.
“Stay put.” There was a strong warning in his tone. “Go on, what do you have?” Henry poked at Janusz.
“Full house.” Janusz grinned, laying out each of his five cards. “Aces high.” He tapped his fingertip to the cards. “Now you.”
Henry’s smile fell.
“Go on, Henry. Show your cards.” Stephan nudged him.
“I’ll show them,” Henry growled, throwing his cards down. “You cheat!” He pointed a long, crooked finger at Janusz. He’d broken it in a car door – or rather he had it broken in a car door.
“You had too much to drink.” Janusz gathered up the cash in the middle of the table. “No.” Henry turned on me, his chair falling to the ground as he jumped to his feet. “You!” Dmitri moved to stand in front of me.
“Henry. Enough,” he barked in Polish.
“She told him my cards. She made a noise. I heard it!” Henry shouted.
“Oh, shut up, you old man,” Janusz chastised. “Sit down. We’re not done playing.” “He is. He’s out of cash.” Stephan chuckled.
“Because of that bitch!” Henry raged on. I pressed myself against the wall. “Get away, Dmitri. Let me deal with her.” He stumbled forward. Dmitri moved to intercept him, and I rushed to the door. The ice bucket slipped from my grasp, hitting the floor and rolling away.
A gunshot rang out. Wood splintered from the door frame just as I reached for it. With a scream, I jumped back.
“Henry!” Someone bellowed. “Fuck!” “You cheat!” Henry yelled.
A chair scraped across the linoleum floor, and Janusz fell back in his chair with a bulletin his forehead.
I froze. His body was only a few steps from me. Blood pooled on the floor, running toward me. When I looked up, Henry had his gun pointed at me. He pulled the trigger.
Excerpt 2- Punishing His War Bride by Sue Lyndon
Fiona startled at the sight of her husband, Merokk, dressed in his full Kall warrior’s uniform. He stood in the doorway of the library, gleaming black armor affixed to his arms, legs, and chest. A
sword, an ax, and numerous knives adorned his thick weapons belt. His visage was set in a contemplative scowl that deepened the lines on his face, making him appear much older than his forty-six years, though he was still as handsome as ever.
Her mouth went dry, and worry tightened in her stomach.
She set the book she’d been reading aside as he entered the library. His gaze burned into her with an intensity that sent quivers of awareness through her body, and his approaching boot steps echoed in the cavernous room, drowning out the crackle of the fire she’d just started in the hearth.
She rose to her feet and endeavored to calm her racing heart. The vision of him wearing his full uniform, complete with armor and weapons, was unsettling.
Normally, he wore the basic gray and black Kall warrior uniform and only carried a small knife. No armor. No surplus of weaponry. At present, he looked ready to charge into battle, and she suppressed a shiver at the thought.
Please don’t let there be another war.
Nearly five years had passed since Earth leaders had surrendered to the Kall, but she still had nightmares about the war. Nightmares that featured thousands of Kall warriors dressed like her husband as they decimated human cities, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
She pushed away the memories and reminded herself that Merokk would never truly hurt her or anyone she cared about. He’d promised to always protect her.
“Good evening, Fiona.” His deep voice vibrated through her.
“Good evening, Merokk. Is something wrong?” She allowed her gaze to wander up and down his armor-clad form, then held her breath as she awaited his answer.
His frown deepened. Firelight glinted upon the strands of white that peppered his otherwise black hair. He glanced at the flames before returning his focus to her.
A low growl escaped his throat. “It is probably nothing, little one, but I have been summoned to the Kall military base in Virginia. Thousands of warriors have been called up and ordered to arrive within the hour. We were also ordered to wear battle gear. Beyond that, I know nothing of the situation.”
Her breath caught, and her worry deepened. “Technically, you’re a retired warrior. Surely they can’t expect you to drop everything and leave your ambassador posting in DC. What if you’re needed here?”
He closed the distance between them and placed his hands on her shoulders. She craned her neck to stare up at him, this seven-foot tall former Kall warrior she’d been forced to marry after the war. In his culture, she was considered little more than his property, but that knowledge no longer filled her with fear. He could be strict and heavy handed, but he could also show her tenderness when she needed it most.
The love they shared hadn’t come easily, but she cared about him deeply, and she knew he harbored the same intense affection for her. She despaired over the thought of him getting hurt, or worse.
“Even if I weren’t under orders to report to the military base, you know I would still go,” he eventually said. “If there’s to be a battle, my presence will be needed. I’m an experienced commander, and a contingent of new warriors would likely be assigned to me during an emergency.” He cupped her face in one hand, and she sighed and leaned into his touch, wishing she could freeze time and prevent him from leaving.
“Yes, I know.” A dark thought entered her mind, and a wave of horror promptly washed through her. “The Kall occupation of Earth is nearly at an end. Just two more months and most of your people will be leaving Earth to return to the Kall home world. Unless, of course, humans violate the treaty. But why? Why would any rebel groups threaten your people and risk everything when the occupation is almost over?”
“As I already told you, Fiona, I don’t know why I’ve been summoned to the military base. I don’t know for certain that it’s a rebel threat.” He straightened. “Now, it’s getting late.You should go to bed, and perhaps I’ll be here in the morning when you awake.”
She gave an irritated huff. She didn’t appreciate his evasiveness and she was also miffed that he was trying to send her to bed. How could he expect her to sleep at a time like this? If Kall leaders were calling up retired warriors, the situation must be serious. Aside from an impending attack by another alien race, which she highly doubted, she couldn’t fathom a scenario that didn’t involve human rebels.
Merokk leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. She melted into the kiss that was soft and gentle at first, only to turn savage by the time he pulled away from her, leaving her breathless and flushed and aching between her thighs.
“I won’t sleep a wink while you’re gone.” She swallowed past the burning in her throat. “Promise you’ll stay safe? Promise you’ll return as soon as you can?”
He emitted a lustful growl and kissed her again, grasping her bottom and pressing his armor-clad body to hers. A sheathed knife dug into her hip.
“I promise I’ll return soon, little one, and when I do, I’ll attend to you properly. When I get back, your tight little pussy and that adorable puckering hole of yours are mine. Maybe your mouth, too. I’ll claim one orifice after another.”
Excerpt 3- And She Is Lust by Annabel Joseph
I woke with a man’s face pressed to my cheek. Through a haze of pained, hungoverconfusion, I realized it was not the man I’d recently married. I reached over to explore the hairtickling my neck. Long, spiral curls, somewhat tangled.
“Craig,” he whispered, pulling me closer. My head throbbed and my mouth was dry.
“I’m not yourfiancé,” I told my best friend.Then, “Where is he?”
Andrew made a sad sound as I pushed him away. “He might be lost. Is Cray-Cray lost?” He blinked at me with sleep lines on his baby face. “We had a stag party.”
“I know.” It hurt to talk. “I was at your party. Are we lost?” I squinted at the window. Thesunshone bright, too bright. What time was it?
Where the hell were we?
Yes, there’d been a stag party. Andrew, Craig, and a dozen of their closest friends had been invited, and we’d gone to the best bars New York City had to offer. Fun, wild, alcohol-soaked bars, none of which I could remember now.
Were we still at a bar? Had we fallen asleep? No, this was someone’s apartment. I looked upat the high, white ceilings. There was a bed nearby, but I couldn’t see if anyone was sleeping on it. Strippers. There had been shots and strippers and glitter cannons. I remembered dancing and celebrating,and drinking from a cock-shaped tumbler with a straw.
“Is Craig here?” asked Andrew softly. “Have you seen him?” “No, I’ve been asleep. I fell asleep.”
“Me, too. This floor is hard.” He stretched, then groaned. “I’ll look for him later. I’ll find him in a little while. I love him, Chere. I love him so much that I’m going to marry him.”
“I know. We just had your stag party.”
He gripped his blond curls. “Ohh. I think I drank too much.”
“Me, too.” I was older than Andrew, heading toward my mid-30s. I shouldn’t have tried tokeep up with the younger guys. I heaved myself onto one elbow with effortand noticed myfriend was twinkling. “Whoa. You have glitter in your hair.”
“Cause I’m getting married.”
I thought of my husband Price. We’d just recently wed, and I adored him with all my being. “You’ll love being married,babes. You’ll love it so much.”
“Shh. You’re talking so loud.” “I’m whispering, though.”
One of his friends appeared, holding his head the same way Andrew was holding his, which I found extremely funny. If only it didn’t hurt to laugh. He addressed the room in a ragged stage whisper.
“Hey. People. There’s a very angry daddy at the door. Tall. Blond. Very angry. He’s looking for Cher.”
Craig’s soft, rueful voice began to sing from the corner. “If I could turn back ti-ime...” I nudged my friend. “Andrew, I found Craig! He’s in the corner.”
“Nobody puts Craig in the corner,” Andrew replied with a flash of temper. “Where is Cher?” asked Andrew’s friend in a plaintive voice.
“Oh,” I said. “Not the performer Cher. It’s me.” I hauled myself to a full sit, looking around for my phone. “It’s me. I’m Chere.” Shit, where was my phone? I’d suddenly realized I knew who the very angry daddy was, and the angry part didn’t bode well for me.
“Andrew?” I poked him, but he’d curled back into a fetal ball with his hands over his head. “Help me, Andrew. What time is it? Where’s my phone?”
“I’m not getting married until Saturday,” he protested, pushing my hand away. I looked down to be sure I was dressed, and I was, although I’d gotten a stain on my wrinkled silk dress that might have been salsa, or strawberry margarita.The man at the door gave a small, aggrieved aghhh as my fiancé barged past him, looking very angry indeed. His lips were set in a line and his vivid blue eyes seemed to shoot fire.
“Daddy,” I whispered admiringly. “Angry daddy.”
He moved toward me, and in spite of my burgeoning fear and head-splitting hangover, I had to admire the way his jeans fit over his lean, powerful thighs. A pale blue sweater stretchedacross his broad chest. It matched his eyes and looked so soft.
“What time is it?” I asked when he reached me. He was so tall. Probably because I was still sprawled out on my blanket on the floor. “I lost my phone.”
“I know. I went to where your phone was. I’ve been looking for you for hours. I had to play fucking connect-the-dots with fifty of Andrew and Craig’s drunk friends and a dozen gay-stripper agencies to figure out where you fucking ended up last night.”
“Oh,” he mimicked, crouching down beside me.“You had a three a.m. curfew, which I thought was very generous. It’s eleven in the morning now.”
“I’m sorry.” I clutched my head, unable to hold eye contact. “I didn’t think I drank that much. But I did drink too much. We were drinking here, too.”
“There were strippers,” Andrew murmured beside me, still half asleep.
“There were strippers, yes. They were funny.” I tried to smile atPrice, but it hurt my cheeks.“ They banged on the door dressed like policemen, and I thought we were all going to get arrested for drinking and making noise, and then they were strippers. Can you believe that?”
“Yes, I can, since that’s literally what all male strippers do, Chere. One of them is still asleep out in the living room with a police badge taped to his chest. He’s the only reason I found you, because he had the courtesy, the thoughtfulness, to check in with his employer before he passed out.”
The way Price emphasized thoughtfulness, well, I knew that was it for me. I pulled the blanket over my head in hopes he might forget I existed and go away.
“I’m sorry,” I said from behind the fabric when he didn’t leave.“I was going to call to tell you I was ready to be picked up, but I must have fallen asleep.”
“Fallen asleep, or blacked out? And it would have been hard to call me, since you left your phone behind at Slapping Cheeks Gentlemen’s Cabaret at some point.”
“Sweet slapping cheeks,” said Andrew with a sigh.
“Do you have it?” I tried again to meet his gaze. Nope, too angry. “Do you have myphone…sir?” “Yes, I have it.” My polite sir didn’t seem to assuage his fury.
“I scrolled through two hundred blurry photos of Andrew and Craig wearing glow necklaces and drinking from penis tumblers to try to figure out where you ended up.”
“I’m so sorry. It was a double stag party. Things got wild.”
“I’m sorry too, because I had no idea what had happened to you. I was fucking worried, Chere. You could have been dead in a gutter somewhere. Hurt. Hit by a car. Kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped, in this day and age?” I joked weakly.
He bared his teeth. “Don’t be flip, you little fuck. It’s still a fucking thing, especially for someone who’s wealthy and hot as fuck, and owns a jewelry brand with a store on Park Avenue.”
It’s true that I was a pretty notable jewelry designer. Famous even. My spare, intricately crafted Starshine Originals had grown to be a favorite with Hollywood’s glitterati. I’d crafted my own engagement ring and wedding band, and the platinum band that shone on Price’s finger as he stood over me.
He held out a hand, the one with the ring. “Let’s go.”
I stared at that hand, just stared a moment. Once I took it, my ass was grass. This hand had tied me up, spanked me, caned me, choked me out for pleasure and punishment many times. But today, I’d be getting a punishment for sure.
“Are you sober enough to walk, or do I need to carry you?” he said when I didn’t move.
“I can walk, but it might have to be slow.”
I hated his anger, I feared it, but I didn’t worry he would hurt me. Well, really hurt me. I still didn’t look forward to the unpleasantness ahead.
I let him pull me up, then grabbed at his soft blue sweater as the room spun. “Whoa, my brain is not okay. I’m never drinking again.”
“Drinking is fine, starshine. Getting blasted is the problem.”He held me until my balance returned, then my head cleared a little and I could walk just fine.
Oops, no, I couldn’t.
He lifted me with a muttered curse and carried me through rooms littered with booze bottles, discarded clothing, and more glitter than I remembered. Oh, there was the sleeping stripper. “I’m sorry,”I said again, burying my head against the side of his neck. He smelled wonderful, like he always did. I probably smelled not so good. I must have said that thought aloud because he growled, “You smell like a whiskey factory.”
“Can I take a bath when I get home?” “Sure, baby. Right after I beat your ass.”
Damn. Well, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy a bath anyway, knowing a punishment was coming. And a punishment was definitely coming. Kidnapping would have been better, now that I thought about it. Price’s punishments were worse than anything a kidnapper could do.
Excerpt 4 Taste of Sin by Alta Hensley and Renee Rose
My feet are killing me, my ears ring, and I’m dying of thirst. Pretty normal after a seven-hour cocktail shift at Sins.
I wince as I walk out to my car in the dark parking lot, balancing two plastic cups of ice water in one hand, along with my purse and keys. I can’t believe I forgot my water bottle–not that there’s ever a free moment to drink it.
I’m in a pair of high heeled stilettos. Yeah, they bring the tips in, but damn, do they hurt!
You would think for someone pursuing an education in physical therapy I would take better care of my body. But then I wouldn’t bring in the big bucks. And Lord knows,I need the money. I’m still paying down the loans from my undergraduate education, living on ramen and mac and cheese. If I didn’t have the job at Sins to supplement my student loans, I wouldn’t be able to afford the gas in my car.
The club closed an hour ago, but there is still a smattering of cars in the parking lot, including a slick BMW that can’t possibly belong to any of my co-workers.
Must be one of the customer’s then.Probably mafia-owned.My lips quirk as I think about the hundred dollar tip in my pocket from one of them.
Marco. He and his brother Leo come in here with different women on their arms every freaking weekend.
Tonight he had the nerve to ask me if I’m ever tempted to come on my nights off. “Never.”
He flashed that cocky smile. “Never, ever?” “No,” I told him. “I don’t like pain.”
“Do you like pleasure, angel?” He arched a sexy brow. I roll my eyes as I open my car door. I would’ve told him I’m not his angel, except I like his money way too much to draw that line in the sand.I groan when I drop to the driver’s seat and take the weight off my feet. I set the water cups
down on the center console and lean down to unbuckle the ankle straps on my heels. “Ow, ow,ow,” I mutter. I can’t stand another minute with these torture devices affixed to my poor throbbing feet.
As soon as I get them off, I start my old Honda Accord and back out.
When I turn to drive out of the lot, one of the water cups careens off the center console and dumps ice and liquid into my lap.
“Ack!” I accidentally twist the wheel when I grab for it and try to shake the ice from my already-soaked dress.One of my heels tumbles under the brake pedal.
I try to kick it out as the second cup of water tumbles all over me.I reach down to grab the shoe, but my foot jams onto the gas pedal and the car lurches forward.
I plow straight into a parked car.
I scream. There’s a sickening crunch of metal and plastic, and I still can’t get the shoe out from under the brake! The engine revs as I continue to shove against–oh God.
It’s the BMW. Of course it is. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
I kick the shoe out and press the brake, gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles crack. What do I do? I’m in a total panic. There’s no logic running through my brain at all.
Or very little, anyway.
I look around quickly for the crowd of observers, but no one’s here. That’s when I make the dumbest mistake of my life.
I throw the car in reverse and hit the gas. After a few excruciating moments of engine grinding and breaking parts, my car pulls free of the wreckage.
I straighten the wheel and flatten the accelerator pedal to the floor. There’s a screech of rubber on asphalt as I tear out of there.
Away from the scene of the crime.
Straight toward consequences I’m not even remotely equipped to face.
Excerpt 5 By Natasha Knight and A Zaverelli
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
My heart picks up speed as voices filter through the cracked door. Unrecognizable voices, but unmistakable all the same.
Those are the voices of the Delacroix men. The men who have come to upend our lives andrain down misery upon another generation of the Wildblood family.
As if she’s reading my thoughts, Willow reaches for my hand, squeezing it in hers. It isn’t to give me strength. She’s seeking strength from me. Because we all know she’s the only Wildblood to bear the crescent moon-shaped birthmark that she had the unfortunate luck of being born with. It’s the same mark of our ancestors. Of all the Wildblood women before us who had them is fortune of being ensnared by the Delacroix family. The first was Elizabeth. She was hanged on accusations of witchcraft from the ancestor of these very same men who will dare to take another Wildblood life. Because we all know the fate of any Wildblood caught in the clutches of a Delacroix. It always ends in tragedy.
I sneak a glance at my sister, giving her a reassuring squeeze while I hold back the urge to vomit. Or run. Or perhaps pick up a blade and lodge it into the flesh of the first man to walk through that door.
Only I can’t. There is a tithe to be paid. A treaty between our families enacted after what can only be described as a generational slaughter.
And if the sacrifice of one Wildblood daughter isn’t made tonight, there will be far more bloodshed to come.