Friday, December 20, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2013

It’s that listy time of year again!  So first off, I’m exuberantly proud to say that as of 12/20/13 I have, according to Goodreads, read 245 books.  That number does not count rereads which probably amount to another 100, nor does it count the 43 books I started but didn’t finish. Virtually every book was some variation of M/M.

The following, rather eccentric list is exactly what the title says, my favorites: not the books I thought were best, but the books that I enjoyed the most, that I reread most often, and that for whatever reason became orientation points for me—books that I reflexively compare other books to. They were not all published this year.  I've reviewed most of them on Goodreads. Click my Favorite Reads 2013 shelf to find the reviews.

So here it goes.

Favorite Sci-fi:

Claimings, Tales, and Other Alien Artifacts, by Lyn Gala  
Bone Rider, by J. Fally

Favorite Fantasy: 

Kei’s Gift, by Ann Somerville  
The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek  
The Magpie Lord, by K. J. Charles  
Richochet, by Xanthe

Favorite Hot Reads: 

Collision Course, by K. A. Mitchell
Bad Boyfriend, K. A. Mitchell
Dirty Laundry, by Heidi Cullinen
Not His Kiss to Take, by Finn Marlowe

Favorite Feel Good Reads:

Physical Therapy, by Z. A. Maxfield
The Trouble with Angel, by J. M. Cartwright
Stroke Rate, by L. M. Sotherton


Favorite Dark Reads:

Gamble Everything, by Cari Waites
Last Rebellion, by Lisa Henry
Mind Fuck, by Manna Francis

Favorite Graphic Work:

Maiden Rose, by Fusanosuke Inariya


Favorite Tentacles:

Gay Tentacles From Space, by Charlotte Mistry (also Favorite Title)
Mating Season, by Kari Gregg (in Bump in the Night, ed. Heidi Belleau)

Favorites From the M/M Romance Group's Love Has No Boundaries Collection:

When You Were Pixels, by Julio-Alexei Genao
The Lodestar of Ys, by Amy Rae Durreson
Worthy, by Lia Black

Most Read Author: 

Keegan Kennedy (also filthiest, craziest, most holy-shit-I-can't-believe-I-just-read-that) See Cops and Robbers for a good example of his work

Favorite (and perhaps only?) Book with No Sex:

The Foxhole Court, by Nora Sakavic

Best of the Best:

If I had to pick one book from this list that represented my absolute top pick for the year, it would be Claimings, Tales, and Other Alien Artifacts by Lyn Gala. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread it now, probably because it represents the perfect fusion of my two favorite genres, M/M and sci-fi.  Click here for my very inadequate review on Goodreads, but really just read it. 

Supplemental Notes: 
As of this writing, The God Eaters, The Foxhole Court, The Last Rebellion,  Not His Kiss To Take and all the stories from Love Has No Boundaries can be downloaded for free--just click the title's link.  Maiden Rose can also be read for free online.

I'd also like to reissue the warning I posted last February.  Every single one of these books is M/M, and except for the last, they are all ADULT ONLY.  Several, and not just the dark reads, feature BDSM, rape, and/or non-consensual situations.  It is crucial to know your own limits and pay attention to content warnings. Always feel free to ask me if have any questions or worries about this.  I truly believe reading in this genre should be about pleasure, not about testing your triggers or restocking your supply of nightmare-fodder.

And in Conclusion: 
I'd like to say a few thanks yous: first to Goodreads.  Despite all the turmoil this past fall, the site remains the primary incubator for the M/M genre, bringing together authors and readers in endlessly productive and creative ways. My next thank you goes to my Goodreads friends for all the work they put into discovering, reading, and reviewing this emerging genre, and enabling me to discover authors I'd never know about otherwise.  And finally, I'd like to thank the authors themselves for being so talented, for choosing to write in this genre, for writing such intelligent, enjoyable, and challenging books, and finally for getting their work out there so I could find it.  Hopefully this post will help you find it too.

There are a lot of amazing books coming next year--I am already looking forward to sharing them with you in another post a year from now.  In the meantime Happy Reading and Happy New Year.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Just Read it and Thank Me Later: A Review of J. Fally's Bone Rider


So I've been goofing off this past week instead of pulling together another piece of stupefying brilliance for my article series, so I thought instead I'd give you a little Thanksgiving gift in the form of a book recommendation, a new book by a new author,  Bone Rider by J. Fally.  Here's a copy of my Goodreads Gushfest... er, Review.  

What's the word I want? Fantastic? Stupendous? Expialadocious? None of them will do this justice. I'm not sure I'm up to a full review on this, so I'll stick to a few of the things I most admired about this book:

It is totally original. The premise and the development toss every cliche out the truck window. I've never read a story like this.

It is a total thrill ride--the plotting is just unfuckingbelievably awesome. The reference to Die Hard is no exaggeration: J. Fally can write an action sequence--make that about 19 action sequences. It's a roller coaster thrill ride, without, I'm not kidding, a single lame or dull moment in it.

The Capital H's: Hilarious and Hot.

It has... I really don't have a word here for the characters. The book features a good half dozen major perspectives and a host of secondary characters, EACH AND EVERY ONE OF WHICH is treated with respect. There are no cheap shots, cheap stereotypes, cheap villains. Strictly speaking, there are no villains at all, though there is plenty of conflict and there are adversaries. I used the word "respect": this is an author who respects her characters enough to look at why they act the way they do, treating their choices with what I'll have to call compassionate understanding--that sounds too sentimental for the actual effect, but it's the best I can do. When you realize that this is a story about government special-ops soldiers in hot pursuit of an alien they are desperately trying to kill, you will realize how goddamn many cliches Fally does not fall into here. The closest comparison I have is to Dani Alexander, another author who avoids villains, even when her characters do evil things.

Bottom line: Christmas has come early. This is a far better gift than anything you'll find on Black Friday. You've been given a great gift here, people, so read it and enjoy it, and then read it again. That's my plan for the holiday weekend.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fifty Shades of Boneheaded or WTF is Wrong with Erotica Reviewing?

So this summer, one of those dear, article-sending friends we all have, knowing of my interest in erotica, forwarded me a review from The New Republic of Alicia Nutting's novel, Tampa, entitled, “The Phony Transgressiveness of Tampa” which caused a bit of a personal kerfuffle. Here is the author, Maggie Shipstead’s, opening paragraph:

What makes a piece of fiction erotica? I’d say that erotic fiction is defined by explicit sexual content included for its own sake (not necessarily in service of a story) and an intent to arouse. Since as far back as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (published in England in 1748), erotic fiction has tended to have a cyclical, masturbation-friendly structure. Flimsy, ostensibly plot-advancing sequences segue into sexual encounters much in the way pizza deliveries and doctor appointments perfunctorily frame pornographic movies, providing a bit of context and loosely situating the observed participants.

Shipstead then goes on to muse about books by Philip Roth or Nabokov that “transcend” the genre with their stunning literary style, and conclusively demonstrates why Tampa fails to do that.

I spent several hours composing a comment, which I imagined was so magisterial it would generate lots of responses and debate. Ha Ha. Anyway, not able to let its stupendous brilliance rest in obscurity, I will reprint it here:

Obviously Shipstead is perfectly free to define “erotica” using the same criteria usually used for pornography. However, for those who actually read and write in this genre, “erotica” is fully a subgenre of romance, but without the old publishers’ injunctions against explicit terms and descriptions. Shipstead’s general dismissiveness towards the genre is only reinforced by her use of Lolita, one of the most acclaimed novels of the twentieth-century, as her standard. I heartily concede most erotica published (at any time in history) does not “transcend” the genre like Nabokov’s masterpiece does. But could we find a more loaded comparison? Do we usually evaluate Tom Clancy novels by the same standards as Joseph Conrad’s? Romance, erotic or not, is genre fiction, just like thrillers, mysteries, or sword-and-sorcery novels. It’s not trying to transcend anything, but that does not make it the same as pornography in either content or purpose.

Based on Shipstead’s review and the blurb, I would characterize Tampa (like American Psycho) completely as satire, specifically of the most aggressive Swiftian mode that pulls readers in with its shocking material in order to leave them feeling compromised and implicated. Any arousal you feel reading Tampa is designed to make you feel guilty and filthy, which is a legitimate authorial goal, but could not be further from the governing logic of romance, no matter how much sex is depicted.

Obviously, erotica is supposed to be hot, but it’s about fantasy and wish-fulfillment and cutting loose your inhibitions. Above all it’s about pleasure. Sometimes that pleasure can feel quite transgressive, or at least forbidden, but most romance writers and readers would agree that the sole unifying convention of romance is the Happily Ever After (HEA). The HEA almost by definition precludes a story featuring a sociopathic pedophile as its heroine. For those interested in reading books that show more of the range of erotica today, I would recommend the hilarious and intelligent Control by Charlotte Stein or Out of the Woods by Syd McGinley (click here for my review), a genuinely transgressive and sometimes disturbing book, but one that ultimately falls within the conventions of romance.

Rereading my comment now, I don’t find it particularly harsh, but I fully admit to being in a full-on conniption when I wrote it. Shipstead’s piece raised some bad memories from the “reviews” of Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) that journals like the New York Times and Newsweek felt obliged to publish when the trilogy sold 70 MILLION EFFING COPIES. Needless to say, major journals that cover culture do not usually review romance, but I was still pretty appalled at what they managed to say about the book. Here is a run-down of what I see as the main problems.

1. Endless condescension towards people (the vast majority of whom are women) who liked the book, commonly epitomized by references to mothers—mommy-porn, mom-friendly, etc. Here is a typical quote from an early piece on the “phenomenon” from the Times:

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic novel by an obscure author that has been described as “Mommy porn” and “Twilight” for grown-ups, has electrified women across the country, who have spread the word like gospel on Facebook pages, at school functions and in spin classes.

2. The discussion of the sex itself, usually either winking references to the book’s naughty pictures of nekkid girls—in handcuffs! or patronizing dismissals on the grounds that the books aren’t depicting authentic hard-core kink. Here’s Newsweek:

To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.

3. Appalled indignation at the book’s anti-feminist relationship dynamics. Typical example: “Women Falling For Fifty Shades Of Degradation”  from The Courant, or "Shades of Red" in The Huffington Post.

4. And finally, endless, ENDLESS complaints about how horrible the writing is. Here’s the Tribune:

The book is classified as erotic fiction, where I am sure the word ‘erotic’ is used in the loosest sense of the word. If erotic passages are meant to induce an almost impossible combination of disbelief, cringing and inadvertent hilarity then, by all means, Fifty Shades of Grey is the most erotic novel ever written. Frankly, until now, I did not think it was possible to wince, laugh, and grind my teeth at same time.

Here’s Vulture on the "Thinking Woman's Guide To Fifty Shades of Grey":

So even though I'm late to the phenomenon, I felt compelled to pick it up. After reading it, there are just a few things I don't understand. Namely, how it's possible that anybody is turned on by this.

I'm sorry. I know, it's soft porn, and it's not there to better us. But the advantage of erotic fiction over a DVD of I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Team is that books will always at least FEEL more high-minded than movies.

I'm not going to spend more time on the fundamental problem with assuming that millions of women who liked FSoG somehow can't think, but the Vulture example is helpful in that the writer explicitly states what is obviously true of all of the reviews: that the critic would never have read the book if it hadn’t become the focus of a media storm. A lot of them admit to forcing themselves to finish it. The other thing they all have in common is that none of them read contemporary romance or erotica—why else would they pepper their reviews with references to Philip Roth, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or Lolita? (Fanny Hill? Seriously WTF!). They know nothing at all about it.

None of these reactions are surprising when you ask a critic who spends his or her life writing scintillating essays assessing the latest candidates for the Booker Prize to read Fifty Shades of Grey. But they expose the fallacy that expertise in contemporary literary fiction somehow confers competence to review any contemporary novel. Discussing an influential work of genre fiction requires at a bare minimum familiarity with that genre. I would also argue that it requires a basic appreciation of that genre, including the capacity to enjoy works in it. Here is a critic from the London Review of Books:

When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh. Erotic writing is said to have a noble pedigree: the goings-on in Ovid, the whipping in Sade, the bare-arsed wrestling in Lawrence, the garter-snapping in Anaïs Nin, the wife-swapping in Updike, the arcs of semen hither and yon. But it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.

Do I have to point out the inherent limitations of a critic attempting to assess the significance of FSoG who admits in the first paragraph that he does not find written descriptions of sex to be the least arousing?

Ultimately, my problem is not really with the critics, who are just stating their opinions. But I cannot let the journals themselves off the hook. Why on earth can’t the Times farm that review out to someone who reads hundreds of erotic novels, and preferably dozens of fan-fics also, who is familiar with the conventions, politics, levels of sexual intensity, anything at all about this genre?

Please be clear: we do not see this in other aspects of popular culture reviewing. The New York Times does not send their opera guy who can’t stand Rap to review Jay-Z. My generation (X) does not respect lines between high- and low-brow culture. We watch Jersey Shore and then write about it for the Times Magazine. We have “experts” on Manga and Anime and X-Box games who are capable of writing lucid, engaging, and persuasively authoritative essays on specific examples. (I will discuss in another essay why I think why organs like the Times are guilty of this staggering incompetence with erotica when they would never be guilty of it with Rap.)

I am not trying with this to defend FSoG. But as I said in Part 1 of this series, if you wish to understand changes in the publishing industry, you need to make sense of what is happening in romance and erotica. You need critics of the genrethoughtful, articulate, knowledgeable readers who are familiar with its conventions and thus capable of evaluating specific examples. The problem is that editors and literary critics who are already dismissive of the genre will have to face the uncomfortable fact that these potential critics are first and foremost fans—this is true of Manga and it’s true of erotica. Reading through the reactions to FSoG, it will be a huge step for many of them to admit that such critical, intelligent reader/fans of erotica can even exist.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goodreads Spawns Depraved Tentacle Monsters! Yippee!


This series explores how the recent censorship episodes at Goodreads and booksellers in England represent symptoms of the larger upheavals roiling the publishing world. In particular I am looking at how they each relate to what I will call ‘emerging genres,’ genres whose standards and conventions, critical reception, distribution and a host of other aspects are being actively negotiated and contested by a community of “stakeholders”: authors, fans, reviewers, critics, publishers, etc. Since I am both a writer and heavy reader of erotica and its subgenre, M/M romance, I will use those as my primary lens for analyzing the implications of these scandals.

As I said in my first piece, erotica’s connection to the British scandal is self-evident. The connection to Goodreads is less direct, but I think in the end more important. There is nothing unexpected that booksellers stung by criticism that they sell pornography would react impulsively by attempting to purge it from their shelves. The Goodreads episode was not concerned with erotica at all, and superficially the types of material censored seem quite narrow in scope, but in fact its implications for those who care about erotica or any emerging genre are far more sinister, and unlike the British scandal there was nothing inevitable about it.

Controversy at Goodreads

With longstanding, ugly quarrels it can be very difficult for outsiders to get past the he said/she said aspects. The conflict that spawned this debacle is polarized enough by now that any pretense to impartiality is impossible, and I am not going to spend time arguing "my side." Though I have had no role whatsoever in this quarrel, I do think the reviewers have the right of it. (For those interested in immersing themselves in the details, I refer you to an excellent series of posts on the blog Soapboxing as well as the book Off-Topic, discussed below.)

For the purposes of my own argument, it is enough to know that a very vitriolic conflict between authors and readers over negative reviews mostly of YA books has been escalating for more than a year, drawing negative press and the kind of attention social networking sites most fear.

It is not chance that this conflict erupted over YA, which along with erotica is one of the genres that has been most popular with self-publishing authors. One of the fundamental facts of life for those of us who self-publish is that reader reviews and word-of-mouth are everything.

Now authors getting a wee verklempt about bad reviews is nothing new (though brownies help—as do tequila shots). What is new is how crucial reader reviews are to sales, and how visible they are. The moment a Goodreads review is posted, it is accessible worldwide by the site's 20 million users. As if that weren't enough, booksellers like Kobo (and now Amazon on certain Kindles) also post Goodreads reviews on the book page for buyers to see.

Goodreads' Author Guidelines strongly warn authors never to respond to negative reviews, but authors don’t always realize or don’t care, and some have gone after “bully” reviewers for sabotaging their careers, even resorting to tactics like "doxing," tracking down and posting real names and addresses for hostile adversaries to see. Readers on Goodreads began keeping track of these authors and slapping with the “Badly Behaving Author” label, which can be very damaging since the tag tends to go viral on the site, and many Goodreads users make a point of never buying any book by a BBA.

Goodreads' Response

Given the publicity and acrimony surrounding these fights and their threat to the reputation and actual functioning of Goodreads, it was not surprising that the site’s management felt they had to intervene—which they did on September 20 with the following announcement:

[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

There are a lot of reasons this was a problem. The policy itself as worded is nonsensical. As people have pointed out, does the prohibition on discussing “author behavior” apply to reviews of Mein Kampf? Does their insistence that "books should stand on their own merit" mean we cannot discuss Orson Scott Card’s very public anti-gay statements when reviewing Ender’s Game? (For an excellent survey of how banning discussion of author behavior "ignores all of postmodern literary criticism," see Emma Sea's Why Goodreads New Review Rules Are Censorship.)

Far more baffling was that Goodreads would come down so decidedly on the authors’ side, when according to their own guidelines any author involved in a conflict with a reviewer is de facto guilty of inappropriate conduct. Because management has said nothing about their thinking, users have been left to fear the worst: that the decision represents the first stage in a larger shift by Goodreads, which is now owned by Amazon, away from reviewing and the free exchange of ideas towards a bottom-line prioritizing of selling books and advertising.

Whether those fears are grounded or not, it simply staggers that a site devoted to book lovers could conclude that the best way to quell rancor and controversy was through censorship of one side.  It is no surprise that the result was an explosion of anger and protests that has drawn in users who would never be at risk of having a shelf or review deleted, and risks yet more attention from the media. And here’s where I’d like to back up my claim in the previous essay on how management’s decision represents a serious failure to understand the mentality of the site’s users.

A Community of Stakeholders

As far as the economics of publishing today goes, there are two crucial types of reader: the first is the old-style consumer whose book purchases are based on the best-seller lists or recommendations by mass-media organs of varying degrees of prestige. It is no stretch to say that these buyers pay the salaries of traditional establishment publishing.

Then there is our second type of reader, the one who is driving the new publishing paradigm. This reader is a passionate and voracious consumer of an emerging genre dominated by self- and indie publishing. Because there are no professional reviews, and often no agents, editors, or publishers to decide on a book’s merits, that role falls to the readers. Many of them read 100, 200, 500 books a year in their genre. They are not just fans, but taste-makers, and ultimately authorities—because there aren’t any others. Most heavy readers of erotica and M/M fall into this category—as do many of Goodreads’ most active reviewers.

When you first join Goodreads, the site appears to work like Facebook—indeed, it invites you again and again to duplicate your FB friend list on the site. That suggests the creators conceived of it as a place for actual, real-world friends to exchange book recs and post the occasional review. And for our first type of reader, that is probably all that is needed or wanted.

But for the second type of reader, Goodreads serves as the primary meeting place for what I earlier termed the stakeholders of an emerging genre. To take a conspicuous example, the M/M Romance reader group, one of the largest on the site with more than 12,000 members, justly advertises itself as “The #1 resource on the web for M/M fiction.” Beyond providing dozens of fora for readers to talk books or meet authors, the group also organizes innovative publishing events including an incredibly popular one where readers suggest a story line which any author is free to take up. Readers get hundreds of free stories that they had a hand in creating, while authors get exposure, a chance to experiment, and the good will of the community. The M/M group organizers are powerful players in their own right, and work tirelessly along with bloggers, authors, and readers to help develop this genre.

For these users, Goodreads is infinitely more than Facebook-with-books-instead-of-pictures-of-the-kids. It is a professional and creative space, and the key meeting place for their community. For them, the autocratic and boneheaded nature of management’s decision is deeply disturbing, especially in the light of Amazon’s acquisition of the site. Management’s move seems geared towards casting users more in the passive role of our first type of reader. It is not paranoid to say that this familiar type of reader is infinitely preferred by the traditional publishing establishment. It is the second type who is revolutionizing the industry, rendering obsolete all the old axioms on who matters, what succeeds, and how you make money.

The Part with the Tentacles The Hydra fighting Heracles | Paestan black figure hydra C6th B.C. | J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

Goodreads has itself in part to thank that this second type of reader has found her voice. After the site’s managers announced the new policy on September 20, users immediately organized protests, dubbed hydra reviews, which went viral. When those were censored, the protesters put together a collection of essays, Off Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt, which was published on November 3 with no restrictions on distribution. In the four days since it went live, hundreds of users have shelved or reviewed the book, and a write-in campaign has started to nominate the book for the Goodreads Choice Award.

Whether this new reader will continue to find a home on Goodreads is impossible to know. What is clear is that she will never again be satisfied with the role of passive consumer of other people’s taste.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Goodreads Kobo Censorship Debacle Gives Birth to Depraved Tentacle Monster Filth!

In the past month there have been two big censorship scandals, first on Goodreads and then at a variety of English booksellers over the selling of pornographic “filth.” 

The Goodreads issue is a bit more complicated and harder to understand without a lot of back story. Since this has been exhaustively and brilliantly covered on the blog Soapboxing, I will stick only to the barest facts: on September 20 a “customer care” rep for Goodreads announced on a discussion thread that the site would no longer allow reviews or shelf lists that deal with something they called “author behavior.” It then came out that they had already begun deleting reviews without giving any notice to the members. Though they have apologized for deleting without notice, they are aggressively enforcing the policy itself, including deleting an undisclosed number of reviews and even banning some members who have been trying to circumvent the policy.

The other scandal is much simpler. On October 11, a gadfly English tech journal called The Kernel published an article entitled “An Epidemic of Filth,” with the rather impressively indignant subtitle: "How Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, Waterstones and Foyles profit from breathtakingly obscene amateur paperbacks, e-books and audiobooks about rape, incest, bestiality and child abuse."

The article prompted a media storm in the British press that led two days later to Kobo Books, a Canadian e-book site which is big in England (and which I sell through), to pull all of its self-published titles, erotic or not, for review and the “venerable” WHSmith to shut down online sales entirely until, as an LA Times article quoted, “we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.”

A gazillion unlucky pixels have probably been sacrificed to the latter controversy, with critics mostly following fairly predictable approaches: rehashes of the usual debates over the censorship of pornography; handwringing, winking, or mocking recaps of the various smutty titles—a la Forced to Fit (taboo sex stories)—along with their oh-so-titillating covers; equally handwringing, winking, or mocking speculations on the amount of money Amazon actually makes selling porn. 

So now it's my turn to massacre some pixels, and I'll start with a little (indecent?) disclosure: I have a concrete stake, both economic and personal, in how these scandals play out.

1. I’m a self-published author of erotica that features such potential censor-bait as ménage, brothers sharing a wife, explicit erotic scenes between men, master/slave dynamics, non-consent and dubious consent.

2. I’m a book-a-day reader of erotica, most of it edgy and most of it self- or Indie-published. I've not read Forced to Fit (yet) but I've read plenty of stuff even I find questionable.

3. I spend huge amounts of time on Goodreads, mostly as a reader searching out recommendations to feed my reading habit and posting reviews for like-minded souls, and to a much lesser degree as an author pimping my books.

I think the very first and very obvious point to make is that both scandals are symptoms and indicators of the astonishing changes wracking the publishing world. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: we are where music was a decade ago. All of the rules and most of the economics are changing at a blistering speed.  

There are two points that are not as obvious but I think are very important to understanding these industry changes and hence the scandals they spawned.

1. Romance in general and erotica specifically are key harbingers and drivers of these changes in the industry.

2. What we might call “establishment publishing”—big-time editors and agents, executives at the Big Six houses, executives at major retailers like Amazon, reviewers at esteemed journals like The Times or The New Yorker, even bestselling authors—despite being deservedly regarded as “experts” on publishing, for the most part know almost nothing about erotica and what they do “know,” they don’t understand.

The connection of my two points to the scandal in Britain is obvious; the connection to the Goodreads controversy much less so.  It is important to state clearly that I have no reason to think that the reviews targeted by Goodreads were of erotica, though many were of self-published authors.  (I'll refer you here to an excellent article by Ceridwen on the blog Soapboxing on what we can infer from the reviews and the reviewers Goodreads targeted in the initial purge.)  

However, the scandal speaks to the staggering disconnect between executives at Goodreads (and by extension Amazon which now owns it) and the site's users, who produce nearly all of its content and are thus responsible for nearly all of its value.  (Salon has an excellent article on this.)

Fundamental to this disconnect is the way self-publishing has changed and is daily changing the relationship between reader, author, and bookseller. I am not trying to make the argument that erotica is somehow the cause of the traditional publishing establishment’s difficulties understanding the new culture, as if that was something I could ever prove. What I can say is that establishment publishing has a longstanding habit of dismissing romance readers as ignorant, uneducated, dumb, conservative, female, and a long list of other cliches.

This would be offensive and annoying at all times, but when it's directed towards a group of readers who are heavy and reliable book buyers, to the tune of $1.4 billion in book sales a year, it becomes unbelievably myopic. No surprise, these readers are moving in massive numbers to self- and indie-published titles—including erotica that has not been prescreened and sanitized by unsympathetic or snobbish editors, agents, and publishers worried about propriety.

The publishing establishment’s problems with erotica and romance readers are symptomatic of their general inability to cope with the threat self-publishing poses to their business. I would also argue those problems are not fundamentally different from Goodreads’ problems with its reviewers. Goodreads reviewers are non-professional; they generally couldn’t care less about the world of establishment publishing—what confers prestige or makes it money. But top reviewers and group organizers have a lot of power to turn books into hits. Many of them are in frequent contact with authors, and especially through groups like M/M Romance they are quite literally driving innovations in publishing. Unlike many of their establishment peers, they understand the new publishing world very, very well.

And they are fucking angry about this. To quote Ceridwen, a blogger who is a top reviewer and librarian and who is now deleting her account:

Our anger at high-handed and vague policy decisions is not off-topic at all. It is the heart of a dispute about a database and a social network that is largely user-built, from the millions of hours Goodreads Librarians have put in correcting the database, to millions of reviews people have added to this site. It absolutely burns me that Goodreads can turn around and wave this changed terms of service at me like I’m some unruly child who needs to be checked. I’m not your product, or an idiot. I can see what you’re doing with these deletions, and I can tell you, Goodreads, it’s not going to work. I’m still fighting for a community I believe in.

So that’s the background and this post has cost the lives of more pixels than I'd intended.  The hope and plan here is to take up some of the implications of these controversies in separate, shorter pieces, which are provisionally titled:  

A Goodreads primer: or why everyone especially industry types should care about censorship here. 

Why the fuck aren’t there any professional reviewers of erotica or romance?

Is Tentacle Sex “filth,” and am I depraved for writing and reading it? 

Perhaps I can time my Tentacle-Sex blog piece with the publication of my upcoming masterpiece, Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!  If I'm going down for publishing filth, I might as well get in a little shameless self-promotion while I'm at it.  I can't promise it will be the equal of Forced to Fit since I've not read the book. On the other hand,  I have been meaning to check out some dinosaur porn. If I find anything good, I will definitely post it on my tentacles-monsters shelf on Goodreads.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dream Casting for The Slave Catcher

One of the more fun parts of writing a story like this is finding images that seemed to capture the look of the characters. So I thought I would post a few. For more, please check out my Pinterest Board for The Slave Catcher:

First off, here is our narrator, Sam Beron, the Maradi PI.

Next we have Elia, born on Earth, and now bond to the Borathian, Raphael.

Finally, we have Liam, also of Earth, and bond to Zachariel.

The Slave Catcher is currently available on Amazon.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Slave Catcher Goes Live

I am extremely excited to announce that my new release, The Slave Catcher, is officially available on Amazon for the monstrously expensive price of  $.99. 

Here is the blurb:

Genre: Science Fiction, LGBT
16,000 words

Star City, best known for its brothels and casinos, is one of the few planets in the quadrant that outlaws slavery—for everyone, that is, except the galaxy bullies, the Borathians. Telepaths and recent conquerors of a backwards planet named Earth, the Borathians are simply too powerful to refuse. A special treaty allows them to bring their pleasure slaves or “bonds” onto the planet, and if one escapes, they have five days to recover him.

Sam Beron, private locator, may have been born on a Maradi space cruiser, but Star City is his home now and he’d say he despises slavery as much as any native. Unfortunately, a run of bad luck at the casino tables leaves him flat broke and scavenging expired military rations out of a neighboring dumpster. Next thing he knows, the Borathians are offering him a fortune to track down one of their escaped bonds, a beautiful Earth boy named Liam. What's a hungry locator to do?

And just in case the blurb wasn't enough of a hint, here is the content warning:

Warning: Adult readers only: Erotic M/M Content, BDSM elements, Dubious Consent. This story contains a morally, financially, and sartorially challenged alien PI, some gorgeous if foul-mouthed earth boys, and explicit descriptions of sexual, ahem, congress between the same. If you disapprove of bad words, ugly Aloha shirts, or sexual congress with alien species please do not read this book.

I have also put together a board on Pinterest with some fun images of the characters, Star City, and other inspirational pictures.

I hope you enjoy it!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Coming Soon: The Slave Catcher

I have just sent off my novella, The Slave Catcher, to the proofreader for a final review. It should go live as soon as I get it back. In the meantime, here is the gorgeous cover (at least I think) by Melody Simmons of eBookindiecovers:

And now for the blurb:

Star City, best known for its brothels and casinos, is one of the few planets in the quadrant that outlaws slavery—for everyone, that is, except the galaxy bullies, the Borathians. Telepaths and recent conquerors of a backwards planet named Earth, the Borathians are simply too powerful to refuse. A special treaty allows them to bring their pleasure slaves or “bonds” onto the planet, and if one escapes, they have five days to recover him.

Sam Beron, private locator, may have been born on a Maradi space cruiser, but Star City is his home now and he’d say he despises slavery as much as any native. Unfortunately, a run of bad luck at the casino tables leaves him flat broke and scavenging expired military rations out of a neighboring dumpster. Next thing he knows, the Borathians are offering him a fortune to track down one of their escaped bonds, a beautiful Earth boy named Liam. What's a hungry locator to do?

The genre is M/M Sci-fi, a bit of a new direction for me, but one that's been totally enjoyable and rewarding.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Remember how I said in an earlier post that I was willing to trash Twilight?

Remember when you were a seventeen and you were dating that guy (what’s his name again?), and you were so sure that you would never break up because THIS really was TRUE LOVE, and your parents were totally WRONG about him, he really was in love with you, and no two people as deeply in love as you would EVER break up, and no one, especially not an adult, could possibly understand how in love you were?

That’s the world view Twilight endorses. It’s not alone. In fact, most YA romances do. I don’t find that surprising at all: when I was a teen, I totally endorsed that view myself.

What I do find bizarre is how popular Twilight was with mothers of teen girls. My own children are boys, but I have two tween nieces whom I adore, and Bella Swan is the last girl on earth I’d hold up as a role model. Think about it: she falls in true “forever and ever” love with the first guy she ever dates. She practically becomes suicidal when he dumps her. And in the final insult, after he comes back, she contentedly decides to skip going to Dartmouth—or college at all—so she can get married and have a baby at age 18.

I think some parents buy into the Twilight world view because they think it will encourage their daughters to avoid casual sex--or even premarital sex altogether. I don’t really have any time for the abstinence-only, “True Love Waits” propaganda, but even liberal parents might be seduced by the fact that old-fashioned Edward doesn’t pressure Bella into having sex. I can see why he might seem like a reassuring character. Of course I don’t want my nieces dating boys that pressure them into doing things they’re not ready for, any more than I want my sons to pressure the people they date (or be pressured themselves).

But I still don’t buy it, and I think the impulse to hold up Edward as a model boyfriend is driven more by understandable but unhelpful parental panic over teen sex than a sober consideration of what advice might actually enable our girls to negotiate healthy, mutual sexual relations. How on earth can it help them to promote such utterly unrealistic notions of male behavior?

All this being said, I concede that so long as the depictions are talked about frankly not wishfully, the Twilight books could play a useful role in helping parents talk to their teens about sexual relations. However, I have another problem with Twilight, a more serious one in part because I see it in a lot of YA books (as well as Fifty Shades of Grey that was based on Twilight) that otherwise don't have any time for Meyer's religious conservatism.

I CANNOT STAND the way the author holds up for praise Bella’s lack of ego. It’s repeatedly made clear that Bella does not realize how physically attractive she is. Moreover Meyer plays this as a big part of the reason Edward loves her so much—she’s nothing like the vain, snobby, mean girls who think they’re going to win the class Prince Charming. But really CinderBella deserves him because she’s so adorably humble.

Yuck Yuck Yuck!

Like a lot of romance novelists, Meyer succumbs to the temptation of piling on the superlatives with her hero: the Adonis-like good looks, the classy wealth, the soulful piano playing. But since the novel is narrated in first person, what we get is Bella’s endless musings on how lucky she is and how she just can’t believe someone this amazing would want her—as if she doesn’t believe she really deserves him. The implication is that the only way for a girl to know she’s attractive is if a highly desirable male wants her.

All I can say to that is what a godawful notion to impress on a teenage girl. Fuck humility. A healthy ego is not the same as a fat head. I want my nieces to have a strong sense of self-worth—like Jane Austen’s Emma strong! Or Elizabeth Bennet, who scornfully tells an extremely handsome and much richer guy he’s not good enough for her because he doesn’t know how to treat her. And the best part is that it’s absolutely true—he’s not good enough, not until he learns how to respect her. As Darcy tells Elizabeth in an achingly beautiful scene of reconciliation: “I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

Romantic, certainly, a fantasy, most likely, but one I would wish for the two young women who are most dear to me.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The apotheosis of the bitchy ex-girl-friend, or a review of Shattered Glass


The biggest disadvantage of reading so many books so quickly is that the clichés, like thrusting alpha males, tend to come hard and fast. They are more obvious and annoying in bulk. My background doesn’t help since I’ve been trained to identify and analyze literary patterns. And much as I love romance and erotica, they are definitely genres that are strongly driven by familiar conventions. Some like the Happy Ever After I don’t mind (because honestly what’s the point of reading a romance with a downer ending?)

Other conventions are more dubious, however. Villains are an especially weak point in most romance novels. An inordinate number of romance heroines (and heroes) suffer from obsessed, crazy, abusive ex-boyfriends-turned-stalkers. They are also commonly cursed with narcissistic, overly skinny, conventionally gorgeous mothers and/or sisters, who make their lives hell. (Though luckily, they usually have eccentric but loving grandmothers to make up for it.)

Shattered Glass, Dani Alexander’s superb debut novel, tells the story of Austin Glass (also the narrator), who discovers in the first scene that he is very attracted to a young man. The problem is that Austin is not only straight, but about to get married--to Angelica. By the rules of the genre, Angelica will have to be dumped, and our initial impression is a hearty “good riddance.” She’s a walking compendium of nightmare girlfriend attributes: Almost her first words to Austin are, “Just park anywhere. You can afford the ticket.” She’s a super wealthy trust fund baby, whom Austin describes as “elegant and beautiful.” She’s also a total Bridezilla, having changed the color scheme for their wedding six times and made Austin order five different suits from a custom tailor. Most ominously of all, she’s a LAWYER, and not just a lawyer, but a “barracuda” and workaholic.

In the land of romance conventions, a woman like this exists for two reasons, to drive the plot by creating obstacles for the real couple and to make clear how the new love is a more genuine, lovable, completely superior human being. To achieve the first end, she stalks, persecutes, or deceives the hero and/or his new love. To achieve the second end, she compulsively watches her weight and wears expensive designer clothes.

But here’s the thing: Angelica is not a villain or even a bitch. None of our first impressions are fair or tell us who she is. Among other things, she’s Austin’s best and most loyal friend in the world; far from persecuting the new love, Peter, she puts aside her own pain at her break-up with Austin to save Peter’s foster brother, which she is able to do because she’s a kick-ass defense attorney. She is decent, honorable, and smart. Her money and beauty are part who she is, certainly, but do not make her an awful person. Austin describes himself as the “douchebag of the year” towards her, and he’s not exaggerating. That’s exactly the right term for a man who dumps his girlfriend of three years, eight weeks before their wedding.

Alexander’s approach is artistically a triumph, but it is also deeply ethical. Angelica is not the only character in this novel who defies easy assumptions. In a move she repeats again and again in this novel, Dani Alexander sets up a stereotype only to add nuances and complications until it is no longer recognizable. The evil-ex, the homophobic father, even the gang-banger rapist are portrayed as actual human beings with good and bad qualities.

It parallels the hero, Austin’s, own trajectory of discovering all-of-a-sudden at age 26 that he’s gay. “Not bisexual. Not a passing interest in someone of the same sex. Straight--so to speak--to gay.” Austin’s brilliantly funny snarkiness is both true to him and deeply misleading, a cover for the wrenching upheaval he undergoes over the course of the novel, as he is forced to reevaluate and jettison just about every assumption he’d made about his life, past, present, and future.

There’s another parallel here: with the romance form itself, a genre that has been marginalized and dismissed because of longstanding assumptions about its readers (many of them relentlessly cultivated by the old established publishers of these works). With the advent of indie-publishing, their reign is over. Like Austin, both readers and writers of erotica and romance are waking up, accepting our desires, proudly coming out of the closet. We are emphatically more than we seem—as evidence of this I offer the novel Shattered Glass.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My First Radio Appearance!

I am thrilled that I will be a guest on Entertainment Weekly’s News & Notes show on the Sirius radio network, tomorrow July 25th at 4:15. The topics are self-publishing and the popularity of BDSM in fiction. Tune in--channel 105!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Teaching Smut: A Review of Out of the Woods/Twice Caught, by Syd McGinley.

 Out of the Woods (Tarin's World, #1) 

(Note: though the book divides successfully into its two volumes, this is clearly one story, and I am discussing it as such. )

The title question of this post represents a failure of sorts: I tried over several days and multiple drafts to write a review of Out of the Woods. At last count it was 2000 words and growing, and though utterly brilliant of course, it struck me as pointless to post a ten-page review on Goodreads. So I tossed it and came up with another approach to coping with this highly problematic text.

Marketers would probably label Out of the Woods a “post-apocalyptic M/M erotic fantasy.” It is. But it is also an allegory with strong generic and thematic similarities to books like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and Utopia. Though most fantasies and sci-fi stories are allegorical to a certain degree, they are not all Allegories, sustained explorations of major concepts. I will say it here: Out of the Woods is one of the most thought-provoking, compelling Allegories I have ever read. It explores with extraordinary complexity themes like survival, civilization, freedom, slavery, caste, punishment, justice, community, happiness, relativism, love, religious faith, scientific experimentation.

Allegories are favorites in the classroom for obvious reasons, but Out of the Woods has the added advantage of being full of intellectual red herrings. Over and over again, the book raises crucial questions, seems to provide straightforward answers for them, which on further analysis prove to be inadequate and so must be revised or dumped. More than any book I’ve read in the last few years, this book made me think, worry, ponder, weigh options, sweat, lose sleep.

However, I doubt we will see Out of the Woods on college syllabi anytime soon. The reason for that is simple: it has tons of sex. Not just sex, graphic gay sex, blow jobs especially, but also detailed accounts of anal sex, anal plugs, spankings, group action, voyeurism, and this list is far from exhaustive. Even worse, it’s a “slave” or “capture” story featuring both dubious consent and non-consensual sex, with dub-con’s usual mix of titillation and guilty unease. It is designed to appeal to people who enjoy slave or BDSM erotica. Moreover, all of this sex takes place in a novel that while thematically complex is not self-consciously literary in the manner of Lolita, an “erotic” text that gets taught all the time. And since the author is female, it is unlikely to be put on a syllabus for Queer Literature.

But what the fuck. I’m a romance writer—my job is to fantasize and write about it, so I’ll share one fantasy that feels a hell of a lot more transgressive and outré than threesomes and spanking: teaching this book in a college seminar. I think it could be a fucking awesome class—so here goes.

Since it’s not like my students are going to miss the sex scenes, we tackle them right off with a discussion of how the presence of explicit (especially gay) sex governs our assumptions about a work’s value and genre.  We could then deepen and personalize that discussion with a consideration of academic institutions and their mostly unspoken expectations of what is worth teaching and what is outside the bounds of taste. We could talk about how elites, especially Academia, define and monopolize notions of literary prestige. We could look at historical examples of how popular genres like the novel have undermined those notions, but also consider what we think the limits of those challenges are.

Finally, we could spend at least several days talking about the book itself.  Topics I’d especially want to hear my students debate: what is the value of democracy in a survival situation? Are there situations where a fixed hierarchy or caste system is morally justifiable? Can a drastically unequal relationship still be a loving one? How important is it for communities to evolve their own conceptions of justice rather than have them dictated by outsiders, even ones we consider morally superior? And in general, what the fuck is up with those “Mothers”? (A question I’ve mulled over for a truly improbable amount of time.)

So that’s a very sketchy outline of my fantasy class on Out of the Woods, and honestly, it only scratches the surface of topics that could be profitably talked about in a college seminar. The fact that the very notion of teaching this book still seems totally outrageous tells me some uncomfortable truths about academia that I didn't manage to figure out during my eight years as a graduate student or five years as a professor.
Twice-Caught (Tarin's World, #2)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Apologies, Lame Excuses, and General Updates

So first off: my apologies for my ridiculously long neglect of the blog. Though it is tempting to attribute the blame for this to my teenager's problems passing Algebra, my ten-year-old's basketball woes, or my husband's irritation with numbskull regulators, in truth I am entirely at fault. I spent most of April and May frantically finishing a novel, which is currently with beta readers. I am finding that when I’m in the final stretch of a book, I become completely obsessive (to put it mildly). It is simply not within my capabilities to focus enough to write anything else.

(I do hope to have an announcement about this book soon, but I’m too superstitious/mentally fragile to talk about it while it’s still with the readers.)

I am willing to give a heads-up about A Biddable Witch, which will form Book 1 of a new trilogy, Blood of Adonis, that is set 400 years before The Heartwood Box. That book is close to being finished.

(There. I wrote it, and I am now manically knocking on the closest wooden object in my bedroom… er, office)

When I say close to finished, I mean that I am working on the final two chapters. Tragically for myself, I cannot give a prediction on when I will finish those two chapters since I am finding them quite challenging.

However, I have written the first 100 pages of the second book of Blood of Adonis, entitled To Catch A Falling Thief, which is the story of Declan’s love. Because a bunch of readers asked about Declan, I decided to post an edited version of the opening chapters on the blog. When and if I can figure out how to post it so it can be downloaded, I will do that as well.

Finally I have been working on a short story about the crew from The Heartwood Box, provisionally titled “Donal’s Storm,” that shows how sneaky and manipulative Donal can be to get what he wants—i.e. sex, sex, and more sex. I plan to release that with the first cold weather.

So that’s where I’m at. I do plan to keep posting more reviews and comments on my reading. In the meantime, keep cool and Happy 4th of July.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A short story about how Declan met his lady love

To Catch a Falling Thief

Blurb: A free online story that tells how the Black Prince, Declan, met his woman, and perhaps gives the reader a hint of how his descendants, Damian, Derek and Donal Black, might have come by some of their more peculiar ideas of courtship.

Approximately 400 years before the events in The Heartwood Box.

Declan sat at one of the outdoor tables at the biergarten. It was almost eleven, and the other patrons were peeling off. He had nowhere better to go, so he listlessly sipped from a heavy pewter stein, though he knew he shouldn’t. Fairies and alcohol were always a dangerous combination. If Titania knew, she would blister his ear with one of her officious lectures on how he was going to the devil. (To which he would reply that he’d been there as long as he could remember, at which she would attempt to glare at him, never realizing that those round eyes of hers were about as frightening as a kitten’s).

He felt a rather wan amusement when he noticed a small figure running along the stepped gables of the tall, narrow, triangular roofed townhouses. After flying up the stairs with the quick hustle of a child running from a bath, the figure flitted down the other side, and then without any hesitation jumped across the narrow gap to the one house that stood proudly insulated by an entire yard of air all around it, like a nobleman afraid of contamination by its unwashed inferiors.

The feat was enough to make the Fae prince sit up in his chair. Though the jump wasn’t difficult per se, the houses were five-stories tall, and to miss would mean certain death. Declan saw far better than any human in the dark, and he could probably step across the gap—but he also couldn’t die from that fall. The figure moved fleetly along the gutter on the edge of the roof. Declan nearly spat out his beer when the runner seemed to just fall off the side. In actuality, he had swung down from the gutter by his arms, and then slid through the open top of a window.

Declan was impressed in spite of himself. Such skills were nothing for a Fae, but for a human they were just short of amazing, and from his size, Declan judged the boy to be only fourteen or fifteen years old.

Declan raised his stein in a human toast to the little thief—because he was sure that was what he was. He felt no pity for his victims: this area was one of the wealthiest in Amsterdam. Those lucky enough to keep their money during the occupation had done so by collaborating, probably by turning in magic users.

Declan shook off the brief flare of interest. This city had been a mistake: a sprawling mass of filth, poverty, and brutality, coexisting alongside obscene wealth. Titania had meant well, but she knew nothing whatsoever of life outside her realm. She couldn’t possibly imagine a city like Amsterdam, which was now five years into a grueling occupation by the Spanish.

For reasons best known to themselves, the anti-magic fanatics that ruled Iberia had chosen to invade one of the few cities in Europe outside their own lands that was ruled entirely by humans. Ostensibly here to rid the city of “unholy” magic-users, in fact the viceroy and his troops had pursued the more profane goal of extorting every last penny they could from the populace, leaving criminal gangs in charge of actual governing. Thanks to the policies of these holy zealots, open sewers now ran down the streets, disease was rampant in poor and wealthy areas alike, education, businesses, trade, everything had fallen apart—all for the sake of expelling a dozen minor sorcerers, some disavowed Venetians, and a handful of witch-healers.

He should return to Venice, Declan thought, recalling the brothels there. It was humiliating, but the wizard brothels catered to a particular taste, and though the whores only submitted for the sake of gold not desire, some had pretended well enough to grant him a few hours of pleasure. Thinking over the past four months, Declan was sure Venice was the last time he’d even been able to achieve release.

Perhaps Titania’s banishment had cured him. If only he could throw himself at her feet with the news. But like most females, the queen was a soft-headed romantic. She would not consider the complete loss of sexual desire to be a cure.

Declan had almost forgotten the thief when he heard a loud crash followed by shouts and sounds of fighting. The thief suddenly appeared in one of the side windows on the third floor. Declan felt a sudden fear: this window was not within jumping range of any other surface—at least not a jump that a human could make. A cat perhaps could make the jump to the narrow ledge of the window belonging to the house across the alley. But Declan doubted he himself could do it—there was nothing to serve as a handhold. Though the human might survive the fall from the third story, he would certainly break his legs in the process.

Declan dismissed his fears. The boy was obviously an experienced thief. He would realize and find some other escape route—and anyway, though Declan had no pity for the householder, surely he could not feel great sorrow that a thief was being brought to justice, imperfect though it was.

Declan had just settled this within himself when he saw the little idiot throw his legs over the side of the window to sit on the sill without even checking first whether there was an escape from this window.

Despite the darkness and the distance, the Fae prince could easily see the lad’s panic when he grasped his situation. But rather than returning inside, he was eying that opposite sill. Declan slapped his hand down on the table. The boy had a burlap sack slung over his shoulder—it would throw off his balance on what was already an impossible jump.

A light appeared in the next room. A moment later the window was thrown open and a man with a cross-bow leaned out and aimed at the thief.

Declan didn’t think, but moving with inhuman speed, he stood and hurled his drinking cup at the guard, knocking the cross-bow from his hands, likely breaking them in the process. As the man bellowed in pain, Declan took two steps and then leapt across the thirty feet of the canal, to arrive beneath the window. “Jump!” he ordered.

“Who the hell are you?” the insolent little bastard yelled back.

“The person who is going to save your life. You have three seconds before I walk away. One…two…three.”

Thank the Mother it was a boy. Though Declan could have caught even an obese man, no adult would have believed him. But the boy gave a childish ‘what the devil’ shrug and actually jumped.

Declan caught him and lowered him to the ground. The boy immediately began to thrash and fight, but Declan easily kept hold of him. “There’s not much time,” he barked. Lights were flaring all over the house, and he could hear the rumble of men running to and fro, trying to find the thief. He began dragging the boy down the alley when the little thief fell to his knees, “Coo, what’s that? Think it’s silver?”

It was the pewter stein Declan had used as a missile. “It’s not silver, you idiot.” What kind of thief couldn’t tell silver from pewter? And what kind of idiot was he arguing with such a creature? The boy scooped up the mug, which probably cost a handful of duiten, and shoved it in his sack. He then tried to shoot between Declan’s legs, but the Fae was far too quick. He gripped the boy by the elbow and dragged him down the alley and across another canal to the next main thoroughfare. A few more streets in this pathetic excuse for a city took them closer to the walls and a decidedly rougher neighborhood. This close to the gates, there were several ramshackle travelers’ inns. He stopped in front of the one with the most signs of life. “Behave yourself and I won’t turn you in to the constable,” he ordered the lad and then entered and demanded a private room of the owner.

Observing the boy’s thinness, he added an order for a full dinner as well.

The host, an older man with tired blue eyes, paused uncomfortably and looked like he wanted to object. Was he refusing to serve the boy because of his poverty? Declan growled, and the man stammered out a terrified apology. Declan was glamoured to appear like a Slavic mercenary and wore no obvious signs of wealth. But disguising his aura of power and authority was an annoyance that he often dispensed with, especially since it spared him arguing with humans like this innkeeper.

The host licked some sweat from his upper lip, but moved to show them a shabby room off the main dining room.

Once they were alone, Declan let go the youth’s arm. Apparently saving his life was a grave offense, because the boy took a swing at him. Declan did not even bother to block the blow. Despite his impressive acrobatics, the thief threw a pathetic punch—indeed the lad didn’t even know how to make a proper fist. His thumb was squeezed inside his fingers!

Luckily, the boy’s blow wouldn’t have knocked over a toddler so there was no danger in his breaking his hand. When he saw his strike had failed, instead of backing off, the little thief shook his head furiously and then actually slapped at Declan girlishly with both hands.

Declan could only stare. The youth had no idea he was attacking the deadliest warrior in Faerie, of course. But Declan’s glamour disguised only his pointed ears and the Fae glow of his skin. It did not disguise the fact that he stood more than six foot four and looked strong enough to lift a draft horse—which he was.

In a tone that would give a Demon pause, Declan barked, “That’s enough.” He caught the thief’s slapping hand and squeezed hard, which caused the lad to sway dizzily and then fall to his knees.

Finally. But then Declan caught a look at the thief’s face staring up at him, and he almost swayed himself.

His thief was a girl.

Chapter 2

She wore a boy’s clothes, and her ginger-colored hair had been shorn to fall just below her ears, but she was undoubtedly female. She was not fourteen as he’d thought, but closer to nineteen. She had enormous hazel eyes with delicate, auburn lashes. Even beneath the grime on her face, he could see the graceful curve of her brows and a charming sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks.

Charming? Declan froze at the lunatic thought that had insinuated its way into his head. What on earth could be charming about this little urchin?

Declan was even more shocked when he realized his cock had shot hard at the sight of her on her knees. How humiliating.

He looked in disgust at the filthy face, tattered breeches, and homespun collarless shirt covered over by a decent-quality leather vest, no doubt stolen, which disguised her breasts, which were either bound or undesirably small.

“What do you want?” she snarled.

To his consternation, the answer to that question popped into his head in the form of an image of himself throwing her over his knee and heating up her backside for even contemplating that jump—roof to roof, five stories above the ground! Was she insane?

Or was he? He actually had to wrestle himself under control to keep from acting on the impulse.

He’d been wandering the continent for almost two years now, and he’d encountered thousands of women, but he’d never had to fight off his instincts once—indeed they finally seemed to have cooled, rather like scar tissue hardening over a once tender wound.

The girl must have caught something in his glance, because her eyes glazed and she swallowed. Again, he felt a wave of desire, but forced it down. “What is your name?” he demanded.

“Hans!” she snapped out.

“Lie,” he grated. It was impossible for a human to lie to a Fae, and it outraged him that she would dare.

“It ain’t a lie. My name’s Hans.”

“It isn’t, not it ain’t,” he corrected—and then ground his teeth. Was he a bloody school-master now? “Tell me your name!”

“Franz,” she lied again.

Declan breathed in and out. Inexplicably, her blatant lies pleased him—too much. With each one, he came closer to breaking down and punishing her. He gave her a smile that made her shiver and said, “Lie to me again, little thief, and I will punish you. Now, for the last time, what is your name?”

“Jan, you ugly brute!”

Ugly brute was he? “That’s two lies!” Moving fast as a leopard, he snatched her up, pulled her over his knee, gripped her wrists behind her back, and ripped down her breeches as the little human hollered and thrashed.

Once he saw her bared backside, Declan froze. What on earth was he doing? Whatever Titania’s commands, he was sure she did not intend him to return with a filthy human street urchin. Even if the heartwood box turned black, he could not make such a female his wife. He couldn’t even take her as a lover. He forced himself to look away from the lovely pale curves of her arse. He had to send her on her way.

He was about to shove her off again with a warning, when the girl screamed, “I’ll bugger you, you fat ugly cock-sucker!”

All of his good resolutions crumbled to dust. Declan crashed his hand down, causing the chit to howl furiously. He then said, “What… is… your… name…?” smacking her arse with each word.

“Win,” she sobbed out. “Win, it’s the truth.”

That at least was not a lie. He’d never heard the name before. Perhaps it was some sort of nickname. “And what, Win,” he asked, as he delivered another whack, “could possibly be so precious you would risk your neck to steal it?”

“None of your business,” the little baggage screamed at him. She didn’t sound remotely afraid of him—Declan, the Black Prince.

What a strange, perverse creature!

He brought his hand down a few final times, leaving her sobbing with rage, and her arse well scorched. He was instinctively moving his hand to soothe the pain with a caress when his Fae senses caught the scent of the girl’s desire.

Declan just about fell out of the chair. He forced himself to stop and practically shoved her off lest he take some unforgivable liberty with her—a girl who didn’t even know his name.

She jumped back, trying to keep her front covered on the assumption that he hadn’t guessed her secret. She pulled up her breeches and brought herself under control, throwing off the tears and finally resolving into a deep scowl.

A knock on the door interrupted their face off. “Don’t move,” he warned the girl, who was obviously preparing to bolt. He wondered how a girl with so little instinctive stealth could possibly have become a thief.

And to his great annoyance, he could think of nothing in existence more exciting than trying to find out the answer.

The host himself entered and then took his time setting everything out: knives, spoons, bread-board with the same disgusting rye bread that was served at every meal on every table in this wretched city, and finally two covered platters. Though trying to appear indifferent, the girl was eyeing the plates hungrily. It was difficult to see beneath the dirt, but he could tell from her wrists and shoulders that she was too thin.

She obviously wasn’t eating properly!

Another picture inconveniently popped into his head: the girl kneeling apologetically while he expressed his strong displeasure at her poor diet and then pronounced her punishment: he would feed her as she knelt by his chair, her hands bound behind her back. Some infernal imp within his mind tauntingly whispered the word “naked,” but he quickly squelched the thought.

Unfortunately, the damage was done. His cock hardened mercilessly as he imagined her meekly accepting her punishment, and then hardened if possible more when he envisioned her jumping up and attacking him, which would lead to another session over his knee.

The host was watching him nervously. “Is the boy…. I can bring… your servant… to the kitchen to eat, sir,” he said, his voice close to a whimper. “It’s no trouble at all.”

Declan could hear the lie in his voice: the man knew the “boy” was no servant. He was using it as an excuse to separate them. The human suspected him of planning to…?

His temper rose dangerously, but some buried voice of fairness recalled him to reason. It was hardly a stretch to suspect a mercenary who brought a boy this age to the private room of a tavern. Declan could even feel a grudging respect for the human, who braved one such as him to protect a street urchin.

That sensation of respect led to a bizarre hesitation over what he, the Dark Prince, should say--to a human tavern-keep! But he couldn’t help it: Declan had lived many centuries and he understood better than any human could the subtle but lasting damage it would do if he crushed this man’s instinct to help a child.

It was one of those rare moments when he regretted his Fae inability to lie—there was no denying he desired this “boy.”

To his surprise, Win herself came to their rescue. She gave the man a cool smile and said, “That will be all.”

The cheek of that little wench!

Her confidence must have reassured the host, because he practically bolted from the room. Declan gestured for her to sit and pushed both plates towards her. “Go on then, it’s getting cold.”

She sniffed as if she were doing him an enormous favor, and then took her seat. It gave him an unholy rush of satisfaction when she shifted, trying to find a comfortable position for her well-reddened posterior.

As he watched her eat, however, Declan became more and more uncertain about his little thief. She was obviously famished, but after she picked up the spoon, she seemed to be glancing at the table for a fork, a standard utensil in wealthy households, but unlikely to be on offer in an ordinary inn frequented by soldiers and working people.

Before taking a bite, she carefully pushed her food into distinct piles so that nothing was touching. As she ate, she was careful to get no grease or gravy on her hands, using the spoon and her piece of bread. It was absurdly feminine: had she never seen a human boy eat? Even Declan knew better, and he’d always refused to eat with humans before. And the good table manners were just wrong: working people, urchins, the poor, did not eat daintily from the side of their spoon as if sipping scalding hot consommé.

Most tellingly, though she ate greedily, she left the helping of boiled cabbage on both plates completely untouched. No child growing up in poverty would leave food like that, especially not a staple like cabbage, which was almost the only foodstuff available to the poor during the winter.

Despite the tattered clothing and the stealing, his thief did not grow up poor. He wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or angry that she was such a pathetic actress. She was clearly not equipped to brave the dangers of an occupied, crime-ridden city. Why on earth had she left her home and thrown herself on its mercies? Was it reckless willfulness? If that were the case, he looked forward to showing her what he thought of that. Perhaps she was dangerously naïve, unable to comprehend dangers that lay outside of her sheltered experience. Again, he would relish the chance to chastise such foolishness.

But perhaps she had been in some danger in her home—a retainer or relative might have tried to force himself on her; her father might have promised her in marriage to some heartless brute or repulsive old codger.

Declan knew himself well enough to recognize that he wouldn’t rest until he had the answers to these questions. And anyone who had threatened her would pay dearly.

“That was good,” she said, looking around the room in open surprise that this establishment would serve up edible fare. The girl seemed to have no notion of how easily and constantly she gave herself away.

To his astonishment she seemed cheered by the meal—almost as if she’d forgotten the spanking already, which of course made him want to start up again.

It soothed his anxiety somewhat when he realized that her experiences in the city, whatever their reason, had not left her jaded. Surely nothing too dreadful could have happened to her. And now that she had him to protect and guide her….

Once again, Declan was pulled up short by the absurdity of his musings—really ravings. What on earth was he thinking? He couldn’t recognize himself.

At Titania’s court, it was whispered he must be part demon—or at least Unseely. No one could believe a Fae could be that ill-tempered and boorish. He knew he was only tolerated because of his martial prowess. If not for his victories, Titania would have had to ban him or face revolt. As it was, he rarely lasted twenty-four hours before she was forced to expel him for some unforgivable offense. Except that of course, she always seemed to forgive him.

He wished he could call Titania a fool, but she was something infinitely more annoying and dangerous—a well-intentioned female, who to his endless disgust had decided that he needed saving.

“What?” the girl asked.

He’d been distracted, another lapse he could blame on this chit. “Did you get enough to eat?” he asked coldly.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, sounding completely sincere and even grateful. His ear could easily detect the cultured accent that she only intermittently tried to hide.

“Then perhaps you’d like to tell me why you risked your neck breaking into that house!” he roared out.

“What’s got into you?” she asked, raising her eyebrows at him.

This girl! “Do you want more time over my lap, little thief?” The little witch let out a long whistle, as if marveling at his cross temper.

Impertinent baggage!

“You do,” he said in an unmistakable tone.

“No, please, I beg you!” she cried, at least making a show of trying to placate him. His threat had her wary and rubbing her behind thoughtfully.

“Then answer the question,” he said more calmly.

Apparently once she judged the danger over, all caution deserted her because she answered impudently, “Go ahead, look.”

It was all Declan could do not to grab her again. He shook his head, forcing down his urge to punish her. Cleary with his little thief, if he gave in to every impulse to discipline her, the wench would never sit down again.

He salved his irritation with the reminder that he could always punish her five minutes from now since it seemed guaranteed that she would do something within that period to earn another spanking from him.

He opened the burlap bag and pulled out…an old wooden horse with yellow painted wheels for hooves and the tattered remains of a string to pull it.

It was a child’s toy, well used, even…chewed.

He held it out for her, waiting for an explanation. When she didn’t say anything, he growled, “You risked your life for this?”

“What? Don’t you think it’s valuable?” she said earnestly.

Not even five minutes! Apparently corrupted by his young guest, Declan didn’t try to hide his nature, but moved with inhuman speed to grab her and haul her over his knee. Again, he ripped down her pants and rested his hand on her already pink buttocks.

“Tell me now why I shouldn’t blister your rear end?”

“What’s got you in a lather?” she shouted back.

Declan smashed his hand down.

“Fine! I wanted it!” she yelled. Now he could hear a genuine emotion: rage.

It startled him for a moment before he smashed his hand down again. “That’s no answer: you almost died getting it. I want to know why!”

The girl started screaming incoherently at him, something about it not being his business and his being an ugly buggering brute of a bastard anyway and that she wanted it, which was reason enough.

Declan forced himself to exercise what he considered saintly restraint by giving her only four more smacks before he pulled her up again.

Now she was rubbing her rear end, glaring at him from beneath her hair, which had fallen over her tear-stained face. She cringed a bit, before steeling herself to stand straighter, refusing to show fear.

Brave girl!

He realized he was glaring at her in a manner so threatening it had once reduced Titania to tears. He forced himself to relax his features—he really would be a brute if he frightened her. He felt strangely moved by her courage. For a moment it didn’t seem based on blind foolishness, but on sheer force of will.

“Why?” he said more gently. “Make me understand this.”

“I wanted it,” she said through her teeth. “And since I did risk my life for it as you say, may I please have it? Or were you planning to steal it from me?”

He silently handed it to her. Something passed over her face when she took it. The emotions were much too strong. She was on the verge of sobbing—she’d withstood two spankings from him, but seemed about to fall to pieces over this bit of chewed wood.

“It’s yours,” he murmured.

She blinked with surprise, and then her expression instantly transformed into one of blithe cheekiness. “It is now!” she boasted brightly. “Isn’t it grand? I always wanted one of these. Anyhows, them rich blokes don’t need it.”

She’d robbed her own house—that was the one explanation that could account for everything he’d observed. And if the servants there were trying to shoot her, then she’d had good reason to flee. Declan’s mind rapidly assimilated those facts… and then set them aside as somehow irrelevant. He could feel something dangerous awaken within him. The warrior in him sensed that she’d just revealed something crucial, exposed her main weakness—he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

The predator in him smiled. He could be patient. And the moment he understood what that weakness was, he would strike.

Chapter 3

“Who lives in that house?” the soldier asked.

“No idea,” Winnie lied. That look passed over the soldier’s face again, like he wanted to haul her over his knee.

“Oh no, not again,” she warned him. “I won’t be able to sit as it is!”

To her satisfaction, he seemed to accept that unimpressive line of reasoning. She almost laughed that he did.

That was the fifth time she’d almost laughed! Damn it. She wasn’t in control and she needed to be. She didn’t want him to spank her again.

She didn’t!

She reminded herself that those massive hands of his felt like wooden blocks coming down on her rear end.

He’d wanted to spank her nine times so far, but he’d only done it twice. She was having an awful lot of trouble figuring him out. She hoped it was the residual effects of hunger.

It had better be, she growled to herself. She wasn’t going to be trounced by an over-tall, over-handsome, black-haired bravo with a rotten temper.

How angry he’d been about that jump! That had been one of her almost-laughs. What would he say if he knew she’d made it the first time when she was eight years old? Would he spank her again? Unfortunately, there was some scary, deranged part of herself that was desperate to find out.

And it was touching that he’d worry like that. Only two people had ever worried about Winnie before, Maura and Ariel. And of course, it was wrong to laugh when someone worried—Maura had scolded her repeatedly for exploding in giggles when Winnie had practically given the poor woman a heart attack with her tricks. Winnie ruthlessly shoved all thoughts of Maura and Ariel away.

Maybe she’d nearly given the soldier a heart attack, poor baby. No wonder he’d spanked her. It occurred to her that she’d better not call him “poor baby” to his face.

Try as she might—and she really did try—Winnie occasionally spoke aloud without meaning to.

This man is dangerous, a deeply-buried, rarely-heard-from, sober part of herself warned. She needed to get away from him. Immediately! She’d been lucky so far that he’d not figured out her secret, but one lift of her shirt and it was all over.

Winnie knew she wasn’t in control of herself, knew she wasn’t being careful enough. He was no fool, and she didn’t know what he wanted other than to scorch her rear end.

It had taken him twenty-three seconds to reach the right conclusion about Horsie. If he found out the truth, she estimated it would take him fourteen seconds to reach the right conclusion about her.

Double Damn! Disguising herself as a boy had seemed like such a brilliant idea. There were thousands of boys here, loitering on every street and alley, along the sides of the canals, plentiful as stray cats and worth just as much.

The great overriding problem of Winnie’s life was that girls weren’t worthless.

They always had value, and every last whelp in this city thought he could bully them.

Why did this soldier have to be so handsome? And why couldn’t he just be a fool like other handsome men? It wasn’t fair! It made her want to scream, which was even more dangerous to her than wanting to laugh.

She could not lose her temper! Winnie repeated that to herself five times.

She must think of something else instead of how handsome he was.

Falk. Falk had seen her tonight—just barely and in the dark. Had he guessed the truth? He would when he saw what she’d taken. The only question was whether Falk would keep quiet to Gregor. It didn’t say much for Falk’s guarding skills that she’d not only escaped him, but had managed to sneak back into the house and then escape a second time.

Of course, Falk had been ready to shoot her with his crossbow tonight. He had seen her, she realized. That was depressing. He’d recognized her, and this was his solution—just shoot her and dump her body in the canal, cover up the whole failure. As if Gregor would even mind.

Winnie closed her eyes. How had she made such a mess of things?

“What are you so frightened of?” the soldier barked at her.

“You,” she snorted automatically.

Blast, there was that blistering look of his. Damn her cheeky tongue. Maura always warned her it would get her into trouble.

She wasn’t thinking about that!

“Sorry, don’t be mad,” she pleaded shamelessly. He just watched her from under those black bangs of his. Why did he wear his hair over his face like that? Did he have some ugly scar?

“Excuse me?” he snapped.

Bloody hell, did she just say that out loud? She needed to get control!

Covering, she demanded, “Do you have some ugly scar? Is that why your hair is over your face?”

Winnie cringed. Inane, insulting questions were one of her best deflections, but she kept forgetting she was supposed to be a boy. That didn’t sound much like a boy, even to her. Would a soldier notice something like that?

Why was he appearing beneath windows to catch falling thieves anyway?

She decided he was probably bored or broke… that is, she hoped not broke. Who was going to pay for that dinner? No, not broke. He wouldn’t order a meal and skip out on an innkeeper. Not this man. He might have spanked her, but he bought her dinner—two dinners! He caught thieves out of windows, bought hungry boys dinner, and wouldn’t cheat an innkeeper. Conclusion being: he wasn’t a murderer.

Unfortunately that didn’t explain him, and to Winnie’s life-long frustration, on this type of problem her vastly superior intellect was simply not up to the job.

Winnie knew she was odd—she’d been told it enough times in her life, at least 2,600 times by her own count. And she’d been called a pea-wit or something like it at least 1,500 times for forgetting things which others believed to be of earth-shattering consequence, but which she found dull or pointless. There were a lot of things she couldn’t read about people. Nuances of dress, speech, status, actual class, aspired class, profession, were lost on her. (Which she thought extraordinarily clever of her to recognize!)

But she always knew if someone was a fool and if he or she had malice towards her—which after all were the only things one needed to know about another person. She’d never in her life failed to identify an idiot or an enemy within four minutes of meeting one.

So despite the spankings, he wasn’t her enemy. And in his defense, he was an ill-tempered soldier and she had called him some pretty horrible names—at least they sounded horrible. She didn’t actually know what they meant. She was just repeating things she’d overheard Gregor’s men-at-arms say to each other when she used to hide on the windowsill and listen to their talk. And some things Ariel used to tell her when he was funning.

No. She wouldn’t think about Ariel.

The soldier was staring at her as if she were mad. Winnie was extremely familiar with this look. She’d been receiving it from nannies, maids, housekeepers, governesses, dancing instructors, shopkeepers, coachmen, tutors, and other assorted personnel her whole life.

Assuming she’d received that look four times a day throughout her nineteen years of life, subtracting two years for her infancy (that was a just supposition, but she didn’t see how a child who couldn’t talk could be on the receiving end of that look), she would have received that look at least 24,820 times, adding another 240 times for the months since her birthday, that would make 25,060 times—and now 25,061.

“Well do you?” she asked abruptly, trying desperately to rein in her spiralling thoughts. “Have a scar?”

He pulled back his hair.

She wished then that she hadn’t asked. Why did she have to be rescued by such a handsome man? It was so unjust!

Winnie truly didn’t think she’d ever seen a man this handsome, though he looked so cross and bleak. He was gigantically tall and strong as a plowman, but unlike a plowman, he was graceful as a cat, and so impossibly fast, she assumed she must have had some hunger-induced hallucination when she saw him move.

His face looked like a sculptor had carved it, like a statue of one of the mythical Gods. Apollo? No, Mars! The lover of Aphrodite. That is, Ares—the Greek name. (Winnie thought Aphrodite a much prettier name than Venus—she’d have loved to have been named Aphrodite).

Ares must be extremely handsome if Aphrodite, the world’s most beautiful goddess, loved him! She wondered what they would look like doing… that. Mars and Aphrodite. Ares.

Winnie had seen people doing… that many times. At least 207 times. She’d been roaming the roofs of the city for years and quickly discovered how very many people did… that, especially in empty fifth-story rooms. Husbands and wives, masters and maids, mistresses and maids, masters and footmen, footmen and footmen, mistresses and footmen, maids and footmen, even maids and maids.

There was a lot of doing… that, at all hours of the day or night.

(Though that was a secret, of course. People couldn’t know she knew about… that or how much she loved watching other people doing… that.)

Winnie felt a bizarre clenching between her legs, which for some reason made her face flush, no doubt making her look like a boiled bloody carrot—in infuriating contrast to the marble-complexioned Ares before her.

Before she lost her temper for the thousandth time over her abominable resemblance to a marigold, Winnie focused her thoughts on the problem of how she might calculate the odds of being rescued by such an extraordinarily handsome man. She quickly realized the problem wasn’t at all difficult. The chances were precisely 1: [the entire male population of Amsterdam.]

In contrast to that contemptibly unimpressive species, the soldier was graced with exotic dark looks. His eyes were black like his hair, and dark to the point of lightless, so that when she stared at him she had a sensation of falling into them—like the darkness that swallows you up and makes you fall through the bed in a dream. She yearned to touch his hair, just to make sure it was really hair and not pure shadow—she would run her hands through it and then push it back so she could see his forehead, trace his eyebrows with her finger, the strong line of his jaw, and those full, sensual lips….

But then she remembered her own hair that she’d hacked off with a penknife, thinking herself so bloody clever. This man who thought she was a boy—and not just a boy, but a thief, and foul-mouthed street urchin. Suddenly, she was close to tears, which would not aid her disguise at all!

He was looking at her like he was deciding whether she was crazy or needed more time over his lap. Winnie knew that look as well.

She needed a distraction for both of them and grabbed for eccentric non-sequiturs. “You look like Mars. Ares.”

Damn—there was no way that sounded like a street urchin.


Winnie whistled at the ceiling—that was another of her favorite techniques for deflecting questions. It made people so angry they would forget what she’d really done to make them angry.

He slammed his hand down on the table. Winnie jumped and rubbed her rear end again, before she whipped her hand away. The soldier wouldn’t just tsk, stalk off, give her a tight-lipped frown, or shake his head in despair if she made him angry—he would smash that platter of a hand down on her rear again.

“The god of war?” he said.

Her eyes widened. Did soldiers know such things? Well perhaps a soldier might. It would make sense. Perhaps they toasted the ancient deity the night before they marched off to conquer some village, decapitating the populace and then piling the severed heads in the town square, before putting the whole thing to the torch.

“What’s your name?” she asked quickly.

“Declan,” he answered as if chewing iron nails.

“You’re a Celt? How remarkable!”

His eyed narrowed. Damn, damn, double damn. A street urchin would not know that. He shook his head at her.

“Don’t!” she warned sharply. He was thinking about spanking her again, that was obvious.

Maybe she shouldn’t provoke him so much.

Winnie had not had much luck not provoking people during her short life. In fact, she’d almost uniformly provoked every person she’d ever met. She’d never been spanked before, which actually seemed like a bit of a miracle to her. But maids and hired help didn’t spank heiresses, and there was really no one else who could have except Gregor, who’d avoided contact with her as if she carried the Black Death.

She told herself she was merely curious about spanking because it was new. And of course, she was quite angry about it. Incensed!

It didn’t work. Though on normal days Winnie could lie as glibly to herself as she did to everyone else, she couldn’t now. The thought of him grabbing her and throwing her over his lap again was causing something far different from anger.

“Why do you wear your hair over your face if you don’t have a scar? You’re not that ugly!” she said, again reaching for an inane question.

“Don’t!” he warned.

She glanced uneasily at him. She could feel herself losing control of the conversation, which would eventually lead to an explosion of temper. That sober warning voice piped up that she could not afford to make a scene right now.

It was those bloody looks of his. Why did he have to be so handsome, this Mars? Ares.

“What did you want with the horse?” he demanded suddenly. “And recollect, you already know what will happen if you lie to me.”

“That’s impossible!”

“What’s impossible?”

“You can’t possibly do it every time I lie.”

“And you’re going to stop me with your great battle skills?”

“You know, you’re making me angry,” she warned truthfully.

To her astonishment the brute laughed! At her! She would have gotten really angry, except that he sounded like he hadn’t laughed in a century—which might be possible if he’d really been Mars. Ares.

To her great surprise, Winnie found the laugh contagious and couldn’t help giggling. It had been ages since she’d laughed—since Ariel. In order not to think of that, she focused on the soldier. He looked completely different when he laughed, no longer pinched and bleak. When not scowling, his lips were full and rose-colored, the only soft thing on his harshly handsome face. He really looked like he should be kissing Aphrodite. She wondered if he did… that. And if he did, who did he do… that with?

He was looking at her now with an expression that she instinctively recognized though no one had ever looked at her like that before, not even Ariel, whom she’d betrothed herself to when they were both seven. She kept staring at those lips. For the eighth time that night, Winnie felt that strange humming in her body.

Damn, Damn! Why did she have to cut her hair? She was going to cry!

“Come here,” he ordered softly.

To her profound astonishment, Winnie actually obeyed another person without any argument, comment, or procrastination. It was only when she was right in front of him that she wondered why she’d done that.

Her stomach clenched. “What…” she gasped, “what do you want?”

He was staring at her mouth. She moved her hand to wipe it, cover it, but he caught her hand and moved it back to her side and gave a little push to indicate she should keep it there.

He gently pushed her shorn hair out of her face, behind her ear. She tried to push away from him, but he caught her wrists and refused to let her go.

Why was he so handsome?

“Why did you steal the horse?” he asked softly. “And don’t lie to me, Win. Ever.”

Winnie’s mood made another abrupt shift. She laughed outright. Don’t lie ever? As in never? The idea was beyond absurd. Ludicrous. Winnie loved lying—she hated telling the truth, even about completely trivial, inconsequential things. In fact, the more pointless the subject, the more consistently and aggressively she lied. If someone asked her what she had for breakfast, she would say eggs, even though she’d had toast and beans.

She especially loved lying when people knew the truth. In her opinion lies were infinitely more effective and useful when people knew you were lying. The more shameless and obvious the lie, the better.

How could she possibly never lie! The idea itself was lunatic.

He traced a finger along her cheek and then held his finger up for her inspection: on it was a drop of liquid—a tear.

Told you so, mocked that hateful, sober voice of hers. He knows everything. He was watching the house.

No wonder he’d been there to catch her.

“You bastard!” she screamed, her voice shaking with rage. “You lied!”

“How?” he roared furiously, getting to his feet.

“You knew! You knew and you pretended you didn’t.” She swung her hand out to clock him. He caught it effortlessly with that ridiculous speed of his.

Big men like him weren’t supposed to fast. It wasn’t fair!

And people who disapproved of lying weren’t supposed to be deceitful! And now she was going to have an attack of temper, and it was all this monstrously huge, hypocritical soldier’s fault.

Why did he have to be so handsome!

“I could kill you for this!” she bawled out.

“Kill me?” he scoffed. “You realize, witch, that no one has ever called me a liar and lived to say it again.”

“Oh aren’t you the big man!” she yelled back. “You are a dirty, rotten, no-good pants-on-fire lying bastard! Now kill me! That’s what you were sent here for, wasn’t it?”

She’d never been this angry in her life. She wasn’t sure if she was more angry that he worked for her lying murdering thief of a brother or that he’d so completely deceived her.

Pretending to be taken in, while he’d known all the while. Treating her like a fool. That was for her to do to others, not others to her. Especially not oversized ignorant soldiers who looked like the god of war!

Double, triple, quintuple Damn!

Damn squared!

“How much did he pay you?” she sneered.

“Who?” he barked.

“Don’t lie to me! My brother—how much did he pay you? Was it to kill me or just to take me back?” She was shrieking by now. He’d gone and done it: he’d made her lose her temper. She could feel the cascade of suffocating rage envelop her--as if she’d been plunged into a stream just above a waterfall and now was being helplessly carried along by it.

Somehow through the churning waters she heard the soldier haranguing her with his excuses. “I don’t work for anyone—I have nothing to do with your family.”

“You think you can treat me like a fool,” she screamed at the top of her lungs, trying again to smack him, hurt him, punish him in some way for this unbearable insult. The soldier stopped her hand and then gripped her shoulders, shaking her hard.

“Listen well, girl,” he said fiercely. “I have nothing to do with your family.” Somehow the words got through the roiling chaos that always gripped Winnie during her tantrums. He was telling the truth—she wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did.

She blinked at him, wondering how he’d snapped her out of her rage when none of the dozens of servants and governesses hired to raise her had ever once managed it. Now that she’d recovered, she tried to recall what she’d said, how much she’d given away of her situation. She had to say something, anything to distract him.

“Oh, why did I cut my hair?” she sobbed.

When she saw the predatory smile on his face, her knees collapsed under her. “Tell me your real name, girl.”

“Winnie,” she mumbled, even as recognition began to dawn. She’d lost.

He knew.

Something else entirely had been happening here, something that had nothing to do with her brother or her disguise. The two of them had been playing a game, and he’d just checkmated her.

He knew she was sane.

She fumbled blindly for one of the pewter mugs. If she could only break some windows….

“I don’t think so, little girl,” the soldier said mockingly. He brushed his hands over her eyes, and the world around her went black.

Chapter 4

Why did she cut her hair? Declan should have been flabbergasted by yet another female monstrosity coming out of her mouth, but to his surprise, he wasn’t at all.

His thoughts were in such turmoil, it was actually difficult for him to slow them down so that he might digest what he’d learned.

Who would have thought that his gifts for warfare would prove key to understanding an over-indulged nineteen-year-old girl? But Declan could recognize a fellow general when he saw one, though this wasn’t his usual battlefield. A military genius in the form of a slip of a girl, bearing the absurd name of Winnie.

Throughout the conversation, he’d known something was happening that he couldn’t see. It was the same feeling you had when despite all your precautions what you thought was a safe campsite was surrounded by an enemy gifted with stealth.

He could just sense a strategic mind at work, though he couldn’t have explained why. It was enough to give him confidence in its functioning, however, the way a man who understands nothing of mechanics and windlasses still trusts that he can raise a 900-pound drawbridge.

But the hair comment had given him the final clue he needed.

Declan had fought enough battles in his life to recognize a defensive strategy. The girl was like a city under siege. Her gestures and words were her ordnance. But like the greatest generals, she did not use her weapons in the expected way. Rather than bombarding her enemy, she used them as decoys, loud flashy explosions that drew everyone’s attention. Then while the enemy was distracted, she could send her forces out wherever she wanted—or in her case, a young, wealthy girl, who would normally live as a virtual prisoner of maids and governesses and chaperones, could wander the rooftops of a large, dangerous city, going wherever she damn well wanted.

The familiar dark side of himself was outraged by it and longed to lock her in his house, chain her to his bed, spank her lovely arse until she swore she’d never do it again.

But another, less familiar part of him was utterly mesmerized by the strange brilliant cunning of it.

Every movement, every explosive of hers fascinated him. Every reaction of his own astonished him.

She was used to being treated like she was mad—he just caught the look of triumph when he stared at her, stunned by one of her inanities.

He had too many questions to even list, but only two needed an immediate answer if he was to bring her properly to heel: how much was conscious and how much simply habit by now?

And why was she under siege at all?

But ultimately only one point truly mattered to him, and it was no question. She was his. He felt that with a certainty that was rapidly reorganizing the universe for him.

In the first place, he owed Titania a contrite, abject apology. He’d been a blind fool. He’d understood nothing. He could never repay her for what she’d done. How had she put up with him all those years? Where had she found the patience? The generosity?

Even more astonishing, his contrition and his gratitude both deeply satisfied him instead of mortifying him.

He didn’t want to put Winnie down, so he carried her to the door and called to the inn-keep. Too impatient to reassure the man, he used his glamour to muddle his thinking until he forgot any objections he might have to giving Declan a room.

Two minutes later, he lay his precious girl down on the high bed. His spell had left her looking so peaceful, so harmless. Declan barked out a laugh. His sleeping angel was about as harmless as a pixie, creatures who smiled playfully as they lured unsuspecting humans into the mire.

He took a damp cloth and gently wiped clean the grime from her face, exposing those adorable freckles. There were more than he’d realized. They were so utterly human—he loved them. Fae did not have freckles—their skin was pearly and always completely free of blemishes. They never scarred.

He gently took the vest off of her, and then her breeches, leaving her shirt and undergarments on. Beneath the shirt, she’d wound a long cloth around her breasts to bind them. Perfect.

He untied the knot and loosed the cloth, forcing himself not to look at her breasts while she was unconscious.

He created a soft shackle around her right wrist with one end of the cloth, wound it around the bed post and knotted it tightly, and then secured her left wrist with the other end.

Then he climbed in bed next to her, folding her into his arms, so he could just hold her while she slept. His woman was tied to his bed. For the first time in his life, he felt at peace.


To Catch a Falling Thief © 2013 Liliaford Romance LLC

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