4 star review

Review and Giveaway – Heroes are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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Releasing Sept 28th, 2015

Mass Market Paperback

Avon Romance

Blurb
The dead of winter.
An isolated island off the coast of Maine.
A man.
A woman.
A sinister house looming over the sea …

He’s a reclusive writer whose macabre imagination creates chilling horror novels. She’s a down-on-her-luck actress reduced to staging kids’ puppet shows. He knows a dozen ways to kill with his bare hands. She knows a dozen ways to kill with laughs.

But she’s not laughing now. When she was a teenager, he terrified her. Now they’re trapped together on a snowy island off the coast of Maine. Is he the villain she remembers or has he changed? Her head says no. Her heart says yes.

It’s going to be a long, hot winter.

Annie didn’t usually talk to her suitcase, but she wasn’t exactly herself these days. The high beams of her headlights could barely penetrate the dark, swirling chaos of the winter blizzard, and the windshield wipers on her ancient Kia were no match for the wrath of the storm that had hit the island. “It’s only a little snow,” she told the oversize red suitcase wedged into the passenger seat. “Just because it feels like the end of the world doesn’t mean it is.”

You know I hate the cold, her suitcase replied, in the annoying whine of a child who preferred making a point by stamping her foot. How could you bring me to this awful place?

Because Annie had run out of options.

An icy blast rocked the car, and the branches of the old fir trees hovering over the unpaved road whipped like witches’ hair. Annie decided that anybody who believed in hell as a fiery furnace had it all wrong. Hell was this bleak, hostile winter island.

You’ve never heard of Miami Beach? Crumpet, the spoiled princess in the suitcase retorted. Instead you had to haul us off to a deserted island in the middle of the North Atlantic where we’ll probably get eaten by polar bears!

The gears ground as the Kia struggled up the narrow, slippery island road. Annie’s head ached, her ribs hurt from coughing, and the simple act of craning her neck to peer through a clear spot on the windshield made her dizzy. She was alone in the world with only the imaginary voices of her ventriloquist dummies anchoring her to reality. As sick as she was, she didn’t miss the irony.

She conjured up the more calming voice of Crumpet’s counterpart, the practical Dilly, who was tucked away in the matching red suitcase in the backseat. We’re not the middle of the Atlantic, sensible Dilly said. We’re on an island ten miles off the New England coast, and the last I heard, Maine doesn’t have polar bears. Besides, Peregrine Island isn’t deserted.

It might as well be. If Crumpet had been on Annie’s arm, she would have shot her small nose up in the air. People barely survive here in the middle of the summer let alone winter. I bet they eat their dead for food.

The car fishtailed ever so slightly. Annie corrected the skid, gripping the wheel more tightly through her gloves. The heater barely worked, but she’d begun to perspire under her jacket.

You mustn’t keep complaining, Crumpet, Dilly admonished her peevish counterpart. Peregrine Island is a popular summer resort.

It’s not summer! Crumpet countered. It’s the first week of February, we just drove off a car ferry that made me seasick, and there can’t be more than fifty people left here. Fifty stupid people!

You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.

Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.

Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain.

Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.

Link to Follow Tour: http://www.tastybooktours.com/2015/07/heroes-are-my-weakness-by-susan.html

Buy Links: Amazon | B&N | BAM

 

Rafflecopter Giveaway (Surprise SEP Romance Prize Pack)
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I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher, through Tasty Book Tours, this does not affect my opinion of this book or the content of my review.

This is my first book by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, but I don’t think it will be my last.

“Annie didn’t usually talk to her suitcase, but she wasn’t herself these days.” And most people’s suitcases, don’t exactly talk back, especially with such a menagerie of voices and characters. But Annie is a woman who has just about hit rock bottom. Dead mother, dead in the water career, in debt up to her eyeballs, and coming off pneumonia, she’s got only one refuge left, and it is the last place she’d ever want to go. But she’s get a hell of a twisted sense of humor that keeps it all from being too grim for the reader. And really, she’s a little demented and possibly psychotic.

Theo Harp was the bane and near fatal attraction of Annie’s teen years, while he was briefly her step brother. As an adult he is enigmatic and more than a little sinister. Amoral doesn’t even begin to cover it. In fact he’s positively menacing. So, yes, it is safe to say I’ll likely be reading more of Ms. Phillips’s work, if she can redeem a hero like this, it will be fascinating to see what she can pull out of her hat with other character types.

There’s a couple of mysteries interspersed in the plot. A missing legacy, Theo’s motivations and true character, who is out to get Annie, and little Livia’s selective mutism. They were all sort of woven together into a lovely story about personal growth mixed in with the mysteries, or maybe with the mysteries as the impetus. I enjoyed it very much. Annie’s inner voices and expression through her ventriloquism was something I felt was very clever and worked for her as a character, it was quite endearing.

So, that is the sweet. Now onto some sour, the first quarter to third of the book dragged quite a bit. I can’t put my finger on just what it was, but after the initial puppet scenes and the disastrous first meeting, I wasn’t sure I was going to have much good to say. Fortunately, it did eventually get going again. And, there was an aargh moment with a failure to properly birth control, but Phillips pulled it out with some frank discussion on the topic which I appreciated.

But after that the story really picked up. Witty, snarky banter between the two protagonists, funny paired with tragic mixed with sizzle, reveal after reveal like peeling the layers off an onion – many of which were completely shocking to me but in retrospective were perfectly set up, character growth not just for the main characters but for several of the ancillary characters as well, and then a delightful and very believable happily ever with a nice ooey gooey epilogue to see just how everyone settled out.

I really enjoyed it, and will be looking up Phillips’ backlist.

Heroes Are My Weakness: A Novel

Author Info

Susan Elizabeth Phillips soars onto the New York Times bestseller list with every new publication. She’s the only four-time recipient of the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Favorite Book of the Year Award. Susan delights fans by touching hearts as well as funny bones with her wonderfully whimsical and modern fairy tales. A resident of the Chicago suburbs, she is also a wife, and mother of two grown sons.

Author Links: Website Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

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4 star review

Review and Giveaways – Laird Wolf by Vivian Arend

Laird Wolf

I received an ARC of this book from the author, this does not affect my opinion of this book or the content of my review.

This is the second book in the Takhini Shifters series which is a spin off from the Takhini Wolves series. The first story in this series, Copper King, was one of the earliest things I reviewed. I liked that story a lot, but my reviewing certainly didn’t do it justice, so I hope I can do better this time. Plus, this time we have fabulous prizes. There’s a massive tour wide contest with plenty of excellent prizes, and a second contest where you can win a copy of Copper King.

Vivian is giving away one 6” Kindle, along with an assortment of shifter books, AND a wolfie in a kilt!
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And to enter to win the digital copy of Copper King, just comment on the blog, either about this story, your favorite Vivian Arend book, or anything at all. Just comment and I’ll randomly draw a winner!

Now, on to the blurb and the review!

Blurb:

He’s a wolf in a kilt. That pretty much says it all…

Pulling off a rescue mission at a remote castle in Scotland should be an easy task for lone wolf Damon Black. He’ll flash some muscle, show a little Alpha power, and do whatever it takes to ease Addie MacShay’s fears. But the woman who throws herself into his arms and cries boyfriend is more intriguing than anticipated. The sexy she-wolf’s got more curves, more tantalizing scent, more of everything he desires.

Addie’s job cataloguing an estate at the Sterling-Wylde Manor is complicated by the ongoing discovery of new wills and the two creepy heirs who won’t leave her alone. But her fake boyfriend turns out to be a far greater threat—not only is he fun and flirtatious, he looks delicious in a kilt. She craves his touch, but with her empathic skills on overdrive, touch is the last thing she needs.

Damon’s fighting his unruly inner beast. Addie’s fighting their incredible sexual pull. They’ll both have to lower their guard to make this more than a Highland fling.

Wolfie in a Kilt, really that says it all, and don’t worry, you find out exactly what (or rather what he doesn’t) have on under that kilt.

On a more serious note, Addie has a photographic memory and an inconvenient quirky legacy from her two Omega parents. When she gets into an uncomfortable situation during her job as an estate cataloger, her best friend (the heroine from Copper King) sends in the calvary. Damon is an unlikely sort of hero, because that is the last thing he ever wants to try to be again, but man does he rock a kilt.

Both of these characters have strong reasons for not wanting to get into a relationship, but the chemistry and personal enjoyment in each other is palpable. And what I really enjoyed with this particular pair, is it WAS NOT an issue of insta-mate. They found out they liked each other, could work together, and grew to love each other, all without their beasts input. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a good insta-mate story, because I do, but that sort of connection just wouldn’t have worked for Addie and Damon.

So, if you think you’d enjoy a story where the heroine doesn’t go all naval gazing over the hero and can stomp him in chess without drooling over him or even interrupting her work day (but really knows how to work the evening, if you know what I mean), a hero who doesn’t get all bent out of shape when he gets stomped in chess by a woman – and knows how to have fun and rock a kilt, and if you didn’t know Highland Tigers are a real thing, then this may just be the perfect book for you.

(BTW, Highland Tigers are totally real, and my life is now complete because I know this. After you read the book check them out.)

Buy links:

Amazon Barnes & Noble iBooks Kobo All Romance eBooks GooglePlay

Laird Wolf (Takhini Shifters #2)

About the Author: Vivian Arend in one word: Adventurous. In a sentence: Willing to try just about anything once. That wide-eyed attitude has taken her around North America, through parts of Europe, and into Central and South America, often with no running water. Her optimistic outlook also meant that when challenged to write a book, she gave it a shot, and discovered creating worlds to play in was nearly as addictive as traveling the real one.  Now a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of both contemporary and paranormal stories, Vivian continues to explore, write and otherwise keep herself well entertained.

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4 star review

Review + Giveaway – The Highlander Takes a Bride

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I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher, via Edelweiss through Tasty Book Tours, this does not affect my opinion of this book or the content of my review.

Excerpt

“A lady does no’ climb trees.”

“Ye’ve told me that three times now, lad,” Saidh responded dryly, shifting her foot up to the next branch and hauling herself upward.

“Aye, but ye’re still doing it, so I thought mayhap ye had no’ heard me,” Alpin said sharply. When she didn’t respond to that, he added, “I could climb up there to pick the apples and throw them down, ye ken.”

“Then there would be no one to catch them,” Saidh pointed out.

“I was thinking mayhap ye could stay below and catch them, as a lady should,” he said, sounding much put upon.

Saidh plucked the apple she’d been climbing to and glanced down to see where the boy was before dropping it in his direction. Once Alpin had caught it, and set it with the others they’d already gathered, she started to climb down and asked, “Just how old are ye, Alpin?”

“Nine,” he said proudly.

“Hmmm,” she muttered, easing down another branch. “Ye act ninety.”

“Laird MacDonnell says the same thing,” Alpin announced with disgust.

“Then we are in agreement,” Saidh said cheerfully, easing down another branch.

“I suspect the two o’ ye would agree on a lot o’ things,” Alpin said sounding annoyed.

“I suspect yer right,” Saidh said with a laugh and jumped to the ground. She took a moment to brush her hands together, then released her skirt from where she’d caught it up and stuck it through her belt for the climb, then beamed at the boy and said, “Is that no’ nice?”

“Nay,” Alpin assured her heavily. “I’m thinking ’tis a bad thing.”

Her eyebrows rose in surprise. “Why is that?”

“Because ye both just go about doing as ye wish with little regard fer how a laird or lady should behave,” he said firmly. “Someone needs to take the two o’ ye in hand and teach ye—What the devil are ye doing now?” he interrupted himself to ask with dismay when Saidh moved over to the apples, caught her skirt up and knelt to begin placing the apples in the bag-type affair she’d made of her skirt.

I have been anticipating this book ever since I read To Marry a Scottish Laird, and then Lynsay Sands answered my question on Goodreads Ask the Author. Saidh Buchanan has 7 brothers? Count me in! Between the characteristics she showed in the last book and the rough and tumble life she’s led, she sounded like a fun character reminiscent of Seonid from The Chase.

And now having read it, I can absolutely say I was not disappointed. Saidh embodied my recently discovered term/tag “competence porn“. And she was very like Seonid, but without the angst about herself.

What can I say about Saidh? She was always a bit of a tomboy, but when her mother dies when she is a child, sher father and her brothers raised her almost as if she was another one of the boys. She rides, she shoots, she sword fights, and she’ll brawl with her brothers. Basically, she’s nothing like other ladies and she’s happy with herself even though she suspects she’ll never get married (she’s fairly content with that too).

This particular story starts off back at the Sinclair’s celebrating the birth of Campbell and Joan’s first child. So we get a quick peak at the previous book’s hero and heroine’s continuing happily ever after, and a slight bit of sequel bait for the next book (I can’t wait to see what Sands pulls off for fainting Murina), and then we’re off to the current story. Saidh sets out to solve a mystery that she thinks her former actions to save one woman may have precipitated. As I said, she’s competent, she gets in there and gets things done, and that is highly appealing to me.

Greer, the hero of the story, is the new Laird MacDonnell. He’s a former mercenary, a truly good man, and he never expected to end up the laird of a clan. Naturally, he is instantly captivated by Saidh. All the things Saidh figured made her un-marriageable are just the things that appeal to Greer. He feels like he can be himself around her, and he accepts her. Granted, this is a bit of wish fulfillment, because it is unlikely that any man of the time period would have felt that way, but this is fiction, and it worked for me. I enjoy having main protagonists who genuinely like and appreciate each other, who respect each other, and when there are no Big Misunderstandings. That is my catnip, and Sands delivered in spades.

The book is also really humorous. Greer’s notions of honor are very strong, but his ideas of how to hold to them are kind of ridiculous. There was a very “only a man” sort of moment that had me in stitches. And this of course brought Saidh’s brother’s into play. I can absolutely picture her manhandling, and just handling them. Really, it was masterful. There’s also kind of a plot moppet in the form of a Greer’s Squire, that is a cantankerous old man trapped in a child’s body, and he provides some humorous elements as well as furthering the plot and opening Saidh’s eyes to other people’s perceptions.

In the end, I really did not catch the villain until it was laid out for me, and the red herrings were rather credible. I also believed in Saidh and Greer’s romance and their future. I look forward to the next books in this series. The Highlander Takes a Bride is sweet, satisfying, wish fulfilling catnip with a mystery plot that prevents the main characters from meandering into excessive navel gazing territory. 4 stars

Rafflecopter Giveaway (Grand Prize is a Print Set of All Three Highlander Romances and Winners Choice Scottish Stole.  Five (5) Runners Up will receive a Print Set of AN ENGLISH BRIDE IN SCOTLAND and TO MARRY A SCOTTISH LAIRD.  (ALL US ONLY)

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Buy Links:   Amazon | B & N | iTunes | Kobo  

The Highlander Takes a Bride

Author Info

LYNSAY SANDS is the nationally bestselling author of the Argeneau/Rogue Hunter vampire series, as well as numerous historicals and anthologies. She’s been writing stories since grade school and considers herself incredibly lucky to be able to make a career out of it. Her hope is that readers can get away from their everyday stress through her stories, and if there’s occasional uncontrollable fits of laughter, that’s just a big bonus. Please visit her on the web at www.lynsaysands.net.

Author Links:  Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

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5 star review

Blog Tour Review + Giveaway – Wolf with Benefits by Shelly Laurenston

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Wolf With Benefits_Cover

Blurb

 There’s nothing like a good ol’ boy wolf.  And ace security expert Ricky Lee Reed serves, protects and seduces with all the right moves…

Sure, Toni Jean-Louis Parker has to be the responsible oldest sister to a crazy-brilliant clan of jackal siblings. But now she’s cutting loose for some hot, sweaty, no-commitments fun—and the sexy, slow-talking, swift-moving predator assigned to keep her family safe is just the right thing to shapeshift her love life into overdrive. Trouble is, he’s starting to get all obsessive wolf on her every time he looks in her direction…

Getting serious about anyone isn’t in Ricky Lee Reed’s plans. Hell, even now he doesn’t really have a plan—outside of catching whoever is threatening this dangerously brilliant family. But the more he sees of Toni, the more he’s howling for her. And whatever it takes to convince her that what they have is everything, well, this wily wolf is down for the sizzling chase…

Link to Follow Tour:  http://www.tastybooktours.com/2015/05/wolf-with-benefits-pride-8-by-shelly.html

Rafflecopter Giveaway (Three (3) copies of WOLF WITH BENEFITS)

Link to Rafflecopter Page, http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/share-code/NTIxYWM0YzhjYmFkNDc1MDkxYzA3ZDNmMjhhM2RjOjcxOA==/?

Review

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Miscellaneous

Blog Tour – A Sorceress of His Own by Dianne Duvall Excerpt and Giveaway

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OK, this is a little strange for me, but I jumped on this blog tour strictly due to the blurb, which kind of captivated me. I haven’t read this yet, but it is absolutely on my TBR list. Take a look at the blurb, then hit up the giveaway rafflecopter, and then head on to the excerpt which has cemented my interest. I think any fans of fantasy romance will see why I find it intriguing.
 
About A SORCERESS OF HIS OWN:
From the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Immortal Guardians series comes an enchanting new series full of romance, danger, and loyalty: The Gifted Ones
Since the day Lord Dillon earned his spurs, rumors of his savagery on the battlefield have preceded him into every room, stilling tongues and sparking fear. Weary of battle, he wishes only to find a woman he can wed who will approach him not with fear, but with the tenderness that has been absent from his life for so long. Yet only the wisewoman seems invariably at ease in his presence. Perhaps because she garners the same fear in others that he does himself.
For seven years, Alyssa has been by Lord Dillon’s side, counseling him from the shadows, healing him with her hands, and staving off the worst of his loneliness while his fearsome reputation keeps others at bay. Blessed—or cursed—with gifts that label her a sorceress, she is forced to conceal her youth and the love she harbors for him beneath umbral robes that lead Dillon and his people to believe she is the same aged wisewoman who served his father.
All is revealed, however, and passions flare when an enemy threatens Dillon’s life and Alyssa sacrifices everything to save him. When Dillon discovers that the wisewoman is far from elderly, he is instantly entranced. And, as he and Alyssa work together to defeat an enemy bent on destroying them both, Dillon will risk anything—even the wrath of his king—to be with her.
 
Order Links:

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A Sorceress of His Own
The Gifted Ones Book 1
Prologue
England, 1191
“Where is Father?” Alyssa asked, unable to bear the leaden silence a moment longer.
“Outside.”  Kneeling in the rushes that covered the earthen floor of the modest hut in which Alyssa had been raised, her mother completed one last stitch, then bit off the end of the dangling thread.
Alyssa glanced through the window, but did not spy him.
A brisk, cool breeze wafted in, accompanied by morning sunshine.  Leaves the color of a golden sunset had just begun to fall in preparation for winter and painted the forest around the isolated dwelling with bright color.
“Is he angry?” she asked hesitantly.
“He is worried,” her mother corrected, “as we all are.”
Alyssa’s second cousin, Meghan, slumped in a chair by the hearth, brow furrowed, teeth nibbling her lower lip.  The two were of a similar age and had been the best of friends in their youth until Meg’s parents had been slain when Alyssa was ten.  Meghan had gone to live with her grandsire then, far enough away to limit the time the two could see each other.
Rising, her mother crossed to the table in the corner and tucked her needle away.
Matthew, Alyssa’s father, may be blind, but he had lost none of his carpentry skills.  He had lovingly created every table, chair, stool, and chest in their small home.
Alyssa gave the folds of the long black robe she wore a little shake and checked the length.  Perfect.  Her grandmother was a couple of inches taller than Alyssa, so all of the robes had needed to be shortened.  “Thank you.”
The fear and sadness that shadowed her mother’s features when she returned tightened Alyssa’s chest.
“Please reconsider this, daughter.”
Swallowing hard, she shook her head.  “This is what I want.  I have made my decision.”
Male voices erupted outside, one soft and low, the other angry.
Alyssa’s brother, Geoffrey, yanked open the door and stomped inside.  His lips tightened when they fell upon her, garbed in her grandmother’s black robe.  “I did not wish to believe Mother when I received her missive.  What have you done?”
Alyssa raised her chin.  “What I have long wished to do.  I have taken steps to replace Grandmother as Westcott’s wisewoman.”
He swore foully.
“Geoffrey!” her mother reprimanded.
“Well, ’tis madness!” he raged.
Alyssa held on to her own temper, knowing his was fired by concern for her.  “’Tis not madness.  Grandmother grows weaker and more frail every year.  She cannot continue to serve as Westcott’s wisewoman.”
“Then Westcott can do without one.”
“I see no reason why they should when, shielded by these robes, I can take her place with none being the wiser.”
“They should,” her brother hissed, “because the path you have chosen will invariably lead to either heartbreak or death.”
Her mother’s and Meg’s expressions betrayed their agreement.
“I know not why it should,” Alyssa countered.
He took a step forward.  “Think you I know naught of your feelings for him, for the valiant Earl of Westcott?  Or the monstrousEarl of Westcott, if the rumors are true.”
She bristled.  “A victim of rumor yourself, you know people are always eager to believe the worst of others.  The false rumors told of mother’s supposed witchcraft nigh resulted in her death.  Yet you would place your faith in the lies told of Lord Dillon?”
“Violence follows him wherever he goes.  Can you deny that?”
“You would condemn him for defending his king?  Our king?”
He clamped his lips shut.
Meg ventured to speak.  “Do you not fear him, Alyssa?  The rest of England does.”
“With good reason,” Geoffrey muttered.
“Nay, I do not.  You are all well aware the rumors hold no truth.  I have seen with mine own eyes the kindness of which Lord Dillon is capable.  And Grandmother has said naught but good things of him.”
“Too many good things.  She has filled your head with foolish fancy.”  Geoffrey paced away a few steps.
Alyssa caught her mother’s eye.  “Know you where Grandmother is?”
“I think she is fetching her paints.  I shall see why she tarries.”
Alyssa waited for her mother to leave, then turned to her brother.  “Ask me again why I do this.”
“Why must you do this?” he asked helplessly as he returned to her side.
“Because I am tired of hiding.”
He motioned to the midnight material that covered her.  “This is not hiding?”
“Do not play the half-wit,” she snapped. 
“You—”
“I love Mother,” she interrupted, keeping her voice low so it would not carry.  “But I do not want the life she has chosen.  I do not wish to live in total isolation, in constant fear for my life.  You know I have always wished to use my gifts the way they were meant to be used.  I wish to help others.  Healothers.  Guide them whenever I can.  And serving as Lord Dillon’s wisewoman will allow me to do that without risking my life.” 
Her brother snorted.  “You will risk your life the very night you begin to serve him.  You intend to help Lord Dillon take Brimshire, do you not?”
She nodded.  “Are you certain you can gain us entry?”
“Aye.  Mother sent me there ere the siege began, saying only that I would be needed.  They think me one of them.”
“She must have had a vision.”
“Aye.  And, had she seen the reason I would be needed, I would have refused.”
“Geoffrey—”
“You will die in his service,” Geoffrey predicted, his face full of torment.  “Violence does follow him wherever he goes.  And your love will drive you to heal every wound he incurs, fatal or nay.”  He shook his head.  “I do not wish to lose you and, again, ask you to reconsider this.”
She swallowed hard.  “I have made my decision.”
He stared at her a long moment.  “And ’tis yours to make.  I shall await you outside.”  He left without another word.
Alyssa looked to Meg. 
Ever her friend and supporter, Meg made no attempt to sway her from the path she had chosen.
Alyssa’s mother and grandmother entered. 
Her grandmother crossed to Alyssa and offered her a cloth bag.  “The paints for your hands.  Show me again you know how to use them.”
Alyssa obediently took them and, seating herself at the table, applied them the way her grandmother had instructed.  When she finished, her youthful hands bore the appearance of an old woman’s, the skin appearing thin and spotted with age.
Her grandmother nodded her approval.
“You taught me well,” Alyssa said.  “Thank you, Grandmother.”
Tucking the paints back in the bag, Alyssa rose.
Her grandmother clasped her hands and stared at her a long moment.  “I understand why you do this,” she said softly.
And Alyssa could see in her world-weary eyes that she did.  She understood all of the reasons that had driven Alyssa to take her place as Westcott’s wisewoman.
Alyssa’s mother took a step toward them.  “Mother, do not—”
“Beatrice,” her grandmother countered sharply.
Her mother quieted.
“Perhaps I did speak too fondly of Lord Dillon,” her grandmother mused.
Alyssa shook her head.  “You only spoke the truth.”
Sadness softened her grandmother’s voice.  “He will never love you, Alyssa.”
She knew her grandmother did not say it to hurt her, but it did, nonetheless.  “I am well aware of that.  He will think me the same aged wisewoman who served his sire and his grandsire.  He will think me you.  And will continue to believe such as long as I wear these robes.”
Alarm lit her mother’s face.  “You do not intend to remove them, do you?”
“Nay,” Alysaa assured her.  “Grandmother made me vow I would not, for my own safety.”
Her grandmother squeezed her hands.  “You are so innocent, Alyssa.  You know not what ’tis like to love one who cannot love you in return.  What ’tis like to love one who will never be free to love you in return.  The pain that accompanies the pleasure of being in his presence every day.  You know not the misery that awaits you when you inevitably watch the one you covet turn to another.”
“I know it well,” she insisted, and thought it worth the price she would pay.
Her grandmother sighed.  “Nay, you do not.  But I fear you soon will.”  She released Alyssa’s hands and crossed to the hearth.
Alyssa’s mother stepped forward, tears glistening in her eyes.  “We have sheltered you all your life from the hate directed at those who bear gifts such as ours.  I fear we sheltered you so much that you do not understand the true danger you will face once you leave here.”
“How can I not understand it, knowing your past and Grandmother’s?” Alyssa asked her.  The hate and fear of aught different had nipped at her grandmother’s heels all her life.  The same hate had led a man of the cloth to set Alyssa’s mother afire in an attempt to purify her of the devil’s taint when her mother was but a girl.  And a similar hate had driven men to hunt and slay Meg’s parents, who also had been gifted ones.  “But I will be safe at Westcott, Mother.  No one will chance earning the fierce Earl of Westcott’s wrath by attempting to burn his wisewoman at the stake.  All fear him too much.”
When her grandmother returned, she bore several wineskins.  “Are you certain you wish to begin your service to Lord Dillon with such a grand endeavor?”
“Aye.  If I succeed in taking Brimshire for him, he will be too distracted to notice any peculiarities that will arise during my transition.”
For the first time, her grandmother’s lips twitched with a faint smile.  “’Tis bold.  And clever.  You shall serve Lord Dillon well.”
Smiling with just a hint of nerves, Alyssa lifted her robe and secured the skins to her waist with a rope.
“You must be diligent, Alyssa,” her grandmother advised. “And maintain your guise at all times.  Never leave your chamber without the robes and cowl.  Never allow anyone more than the briefest glimpse of your hands.  And never slip and speak in your own voice.”
Alyssa adopted the elderly rasp she had been practicing for months.  “I shall be most diligent indeed, Grandmother.”
Meg’s face lit with awe.  “She sounds just like you!”
Alyssa grinned.
Her grandmother grimaced.  “Surely I do not sound as old as that.”
“Of course not,” Alyssa lied, returning to her own voice.
Her grandmother’s wrinkled features reflected her disbelief as she helped Alyssa straighten her robe.  “Should anyone at Westcott seek to harm you, all you need do is duck out of sight and doff these robes.  None will know a young woman resides beneath them.  When they find the robe, they will search for a doddering old woman, not one who blooms with youth.”
Alyssa nodded.
Her grandmother forced a smile and embraced Alyssa with frail arms.  “’Tis time.”
“Thank you, Grandmother,” Alyssa whispered past the lump that rose in her throat.
“Prove them wrong,” her grandmother whispered.  “Do not let your love for Lord Dillon cost you your life.”
When her grandmother stepped back, Meg rose and embraced Alyssa. 
Then Beatrice stepped forward and hugged her close.  “Be safe, daughter.”
Alyssa nodded, unable to speak as tears burned the backs of her eyes and thickened her throat.
As her mother, grandmother, and cousin watched, Alyssa straightened her shoulders and raised the black cowl that would conceal her features from that day forth.
* * *
Alyssa shivered beneath her dark robe as she and Geoffrey stole through the Stygian forest.  The light of a full moon dappled the foliage around them, enabling the two to negotiate the forest’s maze without the benefit of a torch. 
Though brittle leaves carpeted the forest floor, a light rain had softened them, permitting silent footsteps that enabled the two to elude the army encamped outside Brimshire’s walls.
Geoffrey touched her arm, bringing her to a halt.  Leaning down, he pointed and whispered in her ear, “The postern gate lies through there.”
“You are certain you can gain us entry?” she asked again.
He nodded.  “They think me one of them.  And, should any seek to prevent our entry, I shall use my gifts to attain it.”
“I must speak with Lord Dillon first.”
Geoffrey’s hand tightened on her arm.  “There is still time to change your mind, Alyssa.  You do not have to do this.”
She patted his hand, then gently removed it.  “I shall return anon.” 
Leaving Geoffrey, she once more crept through the forest until she reached the main camp.  Simple structures had been erected over the long months to protect the men from arrows should any be let loose by the guards atop the castle walls.  They also provided the men with shelter to stave off the illness that could be spawned by poor conditions arising from long sieges.
The light of the fires grew brighter as she approached the break in the trees.
Her heart began to pound when she located the Earl of Westcott.
He sat before a fire with a number of his men.  Armor encased his broad shoulders.  A sword, nigh as long as Alyssa was tall, lay at the ready beside him.  Flickering flames sent golden light dancing across his handsome features, providing a pleasing contrast to the dark stubble that coated his strong jaw and chin.  The scowl that creased his brow and made others tremble sparked no fear in Alyssa.  She was far too nervous and excited.
Tonight she would begin her service as Lord Dillon’s wisewoman.
* * *
Frustration beat at Dillon.  Months had passed and the lord of Brimshire seemed no closer to surrender than he had been when the siege began.
“Do you think they are as well-fortified with provisions as Lord Edward would have us believe?” Sir Simon asked.
Several dead cows had been launched over the walls today.  At first, Dillon and his men had feared they were diseased.  ’Twas a common tactic in sieges.
But the cows had instead been meant to convey a simple message:  Those besieging the castle would starve long before the inhabitants of the keep would.  They had food aplenty inside the stout walls.
Dillon shook his head.  “I know not… and have reached the end of my patience.  Tomorrow we will begin constructing siege towers.”  He had hoped to take the castle—one King Richard had granted him when Dillon had saved his life—without violence.  Without death.  Without destroying walls and structures he would then have to rebuild once Brimshire became his.
“Do you wish to send for the trebuchet?”
Ready to be done with it, Dillon nodded and started to speak.
A twig snapped in the forest.
Every man present leapt to his feet and drew his sword.
A small, black-robed figure stepped into the firelight, seeming to manifest directly from the darkness itself.
Several knights hastened to cross themselves.
Dillon motioned for all to stand down and waited for them to relax before the fire once more.  Sheathing his own weapon, he crossed to the wisewoman’s side. 
“My lord,” she greeted him in her raspy voice.
Dillon guided her away from his men.  “What do you here, Wise One?  ’Tis not safe.”  How had she traveled such a distance?  He saw none of his men with her.  Had she come alone?
“My gifts told me you have need of my services,” she whispered. 
He could remember a time in his youth when her voice had been stronger.  But age had gradually weakened it, first cracking it then reducing it to this faint relic of its former self.
None knew the wisewoman’s true age.  The more superstitious of his people, those who crossed themselves whenever she passed them, believed she possessed the powers of immortality and could claim centuries to her past.  Others placed her age nigh that of the elders, who all swore she had served the Westcott lords for as long as the oldest amongst them had walked the earth.  All Dillon knew with any certainty was that she had seen at least two-score and ten years, for she had advised his father throughout Dillon’s youth.
He recalled his intense curiosity as a boy.  She had stood straighter then, had seemed taller, almost grandiose to a precocious child who would not see his final height of a few inches above six feet for many years.  A floor-length black robe with long sleeves that fell beneath her fingertips and a cowl that shielded every feature and defied even the strongest gust of wind had been and still was her constant companion.  As Dillon understood it, none had ever looked upon her unmasked.  Not even his grandfather, beside whom the elders insisted she had first stood.
Since acquiring the title, Dillon had had little chance to speak with this mysterious woman who had served his family for so many years.  He had spent most of his time quashing a cousin’s rebellion, then attempting to claim Brimshire.  And, though he had known her peripherally all of his life, he had not yet decided how he felt about her coming to him as his advisor. 
“All goes well here, Seer,” he told her.  ’Twas not a lie.  There had been no losses on his side.  No sickness.  As far as sieges went, this had been an uneventful one.  “Tomorrow we will begin constructing siege towers—”
“Such will not be necessary.”
He stared at her, shocked that she had interrupted him.  Everyone else feared him too much to risk the fury they all believed would erupt if they did so.  “I know not—”
“Rest easy, my lord,” she whispered, interrupting him again.  “Brimshire will be yours by sunrise.”
So saying, she backed away and let the forest swallow her.
Nonplussed, Dillon heard no sound of movement but knew without grabbing a torch and thrusting it forward that she was gone. 
He turned to face his men.
Judging by their uneasy expressions, most had overheard.
“What do you suppose she meant by that?” Simon asked.
Dillon knew not and, retaking his place before the fire, decided to forgo sleep until she returned.
Hours later, as the sun rose and painted the land around them with a rosy dawn, a loud clanking sound disrupted the silence.
Dillon stood and faced the castle.
The drawbridge began to lower.
Waking his men with a single command, he mounted his destrier and drew his sword.
Squires fetched mounts.  Knights climbed into saddles and drew weapons that glimmered in the strengthening sunlight.
The heavy outer portcullis slowly rose as Dillon and his men took up a position some distance from the end of the drawbridge.
A charged silence followed.
The inner portcullis rose.
All waited in tense anticipation for men to pour forth with a battle cry.
Minutes passed as bird song serenaded them. 
Then a small black-robed figure emerged, face hidden by her cowl.  Striding boldly across the drawbridge, she halted when she reached Dillon’s side.  “As I said, my lord, siege towers will not be necessary.  Brimshire is yours.”
Dillon stared down at her in astonishment as his men all crossed themselves in a flurry of motion.
She had accomplished in one night what a six-month siege had not.
Just how far did her gifts extend?
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