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Happy New Year!!!



Happy New Year, gorgeous people!

I am planning something for the next year I want to try, and I'm very excited about it!
It won't affect this blog at all, and hopefully it will continue going strong, but it's something I've been mulling about for a bit and it's all to do with my off-grid farm life.
Anyway, wish me luck!

I hope all your dearest wishes and ideas will be fulfilled, and 2017 will be AMAZING!
I love and appreciate you all deeply, thank you so much for your continuing support of Nocturnal Book Reviews and me personally!

Hugs to you all,
Karina

My Top Reads of 2016!


It's a tough one this year, peeps! The more I blog, the more critical I get in my ratings. As a consequence, there are fewer and fewer books in this list each year. Still, they are there, and I hope you enjoyed them or will enjoy them just like I did!
Here we go:

Summary
For centuries, the Others and humans have lived side by side in uneasy peace. But when humankind oversteps its bounds, the Others will have to decide how much humanity they’re willing to tolerate—both within themselves and within their community...

Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.

But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…
 
9.5/10
Not surprisingly, each Anne Bishop's book ends up on this list in the last few years. Her writing is just so intense and gripping and makes you think about humanity's worst traits in general in contrast with The Others. I love her.
Summary
The worldwide phenomenon continues—from the boldly original author of Captive Prince and Prince’s Gambit.

Damianos of Akielos has returned.

His identity now revealed, Damen must face his master Prince Laurent as Damianos of Akielos, the man Laurent has sworn to kill.

On the brink of a momentous battle, the future of both their countries hangs in the balance. In the south, Kastor’s forces are massing. In the north, the Regent’s armies are mobilising for war. Damen’s only hope of reclaiming his throne is to fight together with Laurent against their usurpers.

Forced into an uneasy alliance the two princes journey deep into Akielos, where they face their most dangerous opposition yet. But even if the fragile trust they have built survives the revelation of Damen’s identity—can it stand against the Regents final, deadly play for the throne?
10/10
I still feel overwhelmed with emotions thinking about this book. It was just so... EPIC. Fabulous fantasy, Machiavellian characters and powerful romance. There is an antihero to die for. Read it! Read the whole trilogy!

Summary
Told in Kvothe's own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen.

The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature.

A high-action story written with a poet's hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.
 

10/10
I know, I know! I am ever so late in my appreciation of these two, considering that the first book came out in 2007 and the second in 2011, but peeps... this is beyond doubt one of the best fantasy authors I've ever read. The intricacy of the plot and the complexity of the main character are so gorgeous! It all manages to be lyrical and super intense at the same time. I was in bookish heaven listening to these books. And I do understand why it takes so long to write each book in series. Frankly, they are worth the wait!

Summary
Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.

8.5/10

It might not be one of the best but it was very memorable. As sci-fi novels go, this one took me completely off guard, because it wasn't what I was expecting. It's deceptive, melancholic, and again it's about the characters who stick together and make it work despite such differences in their species. Loved it!


Summary
In this spirited sequel, The Rook returns to clinch an alliance between deadly rivals and avert epic—and slimy—supernatural war.

When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers—and the bureaucratic finesse—to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries:

The Checquy—the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural
threats, and…
The Grafters—a centuries-old supernatural threat.

But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women, who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war.

STILETTO is a novel of preternatural diplomacy, paranoia, and snide remarks.
9/10
 The sheer innovation of this urban fantasy series, the dry British snarkiness and the fabulous characters snagged my attention earlier with The Rook - the first book in this series, but The Stiletto turned it up to eleven.

Summary

A MAN OF SIN

Devastatingly handsome. Vain. Unscrupulous. Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is the man London whispers about in boudoirs and back alleys. A notorious rake and blackmailer, Montgomery has returned from exile, intent on seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. But what he finds in his own bedroom may lay waste to all his plans.

A WOMAN OF HONOR

Born a bastard, housekeeper Bridget Crumb is clever, bold, and fiercely loyal. When her aristocratic mother becomes the target of extortion, Bridget joins the Duke of Montgomery's household to search for the incriminating evidence-and uncovers something far more dangerous.

A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY THEM BOTH

Astonished by the deceptively prim-and surprisingly witty-domestic spy in his chambers, Montgomery is intrigued. And try as she might, Bridget can't resist the slyly charming duke. Now as the two begin their treacherous game of cat and mouse, they soon realize that they both have secrets—and neither may be as nefarious—or as innocent—as they appear . . .
9.5/10
This was one of the best historical romances I've EVER read, peeps. Honestly, it was sooo good and perfect and had a delicious antihero and a devious heroine, that I've been pushing it on everyone ever since. So, READ IT! You'll come back and thank me. *grins*

Summary
Warriors. Lovers. Enemies. Legends.

Their union became pivotal in Irin history, but to understand Damien and Sari's ending, you must go back to their beginning. Four hundred years ago, a young singer and a hardened warrior met and loved each other, but their life was torn apart by violence.

Love. Desire. Grief. Betrayal.

No matter how much pain and anger stain their lives, bonds in the Irin race cannot be abandoned. Damien and Sari will never truly leave each other, because those who are destined cannot be ignored.

The Staff and the Blade is a four part stand-alone book of approximately 480 pages. It is the fourth book in the Irin Chronicles.

DREAMS: Damien of Bohemia was a legend content to live in obscurity. Weary from a century of human and Irin bloodshed, he took shelter among those who would not question his silence or the martial spells he wore over his body. Until an earth singer of raw power and no delicacy came to the village where he hid. Sari of Vestfold wasn't intrigued by the mysterious warrior or his moody silences. And she wasn't interested in listening for the whisper of his soul. Even when those whispers promised a connection that could tie them for eternity.

GHOSTS: A new posting in Paris during Napoleon’s reign leads Sari and Damien back to familiar faces and the Council politics Damien has tried so hard to avoid. But the Irin world has changed in the two hundred years since their mating. The singers have become more isolated. The scribes are more martial. And the Grigori flood growing cities and lay in wait. When Sari’s sister envisions the future, she sees emptiness, chaos, and a darkness that threatens to overtake their world.

MEMORIES: Hidden from Irin society, the Irina have learned to take their revenge on the Grigori. They answer to no one. They ask for no mercy. And forgiveness? That’s the last thing on anyone’s mind. Two hundred years after the Rending, Damien and Sari are thrown together to face a new threat, a girl who might be key to the healing of the Irin race. If they can survive the anger and grief that has separated them for two hundred years.

VISIONS: The Irin and Irina are together again. Society is being rebuilt. But what do you do when the foundation of your world has crumbled? Where do you go when all the boundaries have been redrawn? For Damien and Sari, charting a new path into the future means confronting the demons of the past. They’ve forgiven each other, but can they forgive themselves?
9.5/10
 Well, I think it's not surprising to any fan of the author, that this would be in my top reads of the year. Elizabeth Hunter really stepped up her game in 2016, and The Staff and The Blade was a breathtaking read.


Summary
When the immortal Bai Qian finally meets her intended husband, the heir to the Sky Throne, she considers herself in luck—until an old enemy returns to threaten everything she holds dear.…

When a mortal woman enters the immortal world to be with her true love, she sparks a jealousy that ends in tragedy.…

And when a war god depletes his spiritual energy, his devoted student sustains his body with her own heart’s blood until the god’s scattered soul reassembles.…

Spanning a thousand years of tangled lives, To the Sky Kingdom is a story of epic battles, passion, evil, and magic. In its journey across worlds and time, it delves into the powerful forces that drive mortals and gods alike toward revenge, loyalty—and love.
8.5/10

It's hard to explain why I liked this book so much. Maybe it's its unusual format. Maybe it's kickass battles and lush characters. And maybe it's the whole amazing world-building of Chinese mythology and mentality. Take your pick!

Summary
Meet Hail: Captain. Gunrunner. Fugitive.

Quick, sarcastic, and lethal, Hailimi Bristol doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has made a name for herself in the galaxy for everything except what she was born to do: rule the Indranan Empire. That is, until two Trackers drag her back to her home planet to take her rightful place as the only remaining heir.

But trading her ship for a palace has more dangers than Hail could have anticipated. Caught in a web of plots and assassination attempts, Hail can't do the one thing she did twenty years ago: run away. She'll have to figure out who murdered her sisters if she wants to survive.

A gun smuggler inherits the throne in this Star Wars-style science fiction adventure from debut author K. B. Wagers. Full of action-packed space opera exploits and courtly conspiracy - not to mention an all-out galactic war - Behind the Throne will please fans of James S. A Corey, Becky Chambers and Lois McMaster Bujold, or anyone who wonders what would happen if a rogue like Han Solo were handed the keys to an empire . . 


My review
9/10

 There is a female Han Solo in a female-centric Empire with Indian roots. She has green hair. *grins* It was totally awesome, peeps!

Summary
Mercenary Kate Daniels knows all too well that magic in post-Shift Atlanta is a dangerous business. But nothing she’s faced could have prepared her for this…

Kate and the former Beast Lord Curran Lennart are finally making their relationship official. But there are some steep obstacles standing in the way of their walk to the altar…

Kate’s father, Roland, has kidnapped the demigod Saiman and is slowly bleeding him dry in his never-ending bid for power. A Witch Oracle has predicted that if Kate marries the man she loves, Atlanta will burn and she will lose him forever. And the only person Kate can ask for help is long dead.

The odds are impossible. The future is grim. But Kate Daniels has never been one to play by the rules…



My review
9/10

I couldn't leave Kate Daniels out from this list, and she totally deserved it. Best book Andrewses wrote so far. It was amazing!

Summary
After three long years of war, starkly handsome Wynter Atrialan will have his vengeance on Summerlea's king by taking one of the man's beautiful, beloved daughters as his bride. But though peace is finally at hand, Wynter's battle with the Ice Heart, the dread power he embraced to avenge his brother's death, rages on.

Khamsin Coruscate, Princess of Summerlea and summoner of Storms, has spent her life exiled to the shadows of her father's palace. Reviled by her father, marriage to Wintercraig's icy king was supposed to be a terrible punishment, but instead offers Kham her first taste of freedom—and her first taste of overwhelming passion.

As fierce, indomitable Wynter weathers even Khamsin's wildest storms, surprising her with a tenderness she never expected, Kham wants more than Wynter's passion—she yearns for his love. But the power of the Ice Heart is growing, dangerous forces are gathering, and a devastating betrayal puts Khamsin and Wynter to the ultimate test.


My review
9/10

This was such a lovely, gorgeous, unexpected read! Published in 2014, it was on my kindle for ages until I picked it up on a whim and devoured within a day. If you a fan of Warprize by Elizabeth Vaughan, this one is for you.


Summary

Make a deal with the devil and you might get what you want, but will it be what you need?

Jennifer Sylvester wants one thing, and that one thing is NOT to be Tennessee’s reigning Banana Cake Queen. Ever the perpetual good girl and obedient daughter, Jennifer is buckling under the weight of her social media celebrity, her mother’s ambitions, and her father’s puritanical mandates. Jennifer is officially desperate.

And desperate times call for Cletus Winston.

Cletus Winston is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery covered in conundrum sauce, and now he’s in a pickle. Despite being convinced of his own omniscience, extortion by the exalted Banana Cake Queen of Green Valley has taken him completely by surprise. So... what’s a maniacal mastermind to do?

Likely, the last thing you expect. 


My review
9.5/10

Such a delicious, sweet, insightful book, ladies and gents! I love Penny to bits, and this one was one of her best. A glorious contemporary romantic comedy!

* * *
So, this is me. How about your picks? Any of these books made it on your lists? What were your top reads of the year? Let me know (because we all need extra books on our TR shelf)! *sniggers*

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, everyone!
Thank you for sticking with me and as usual, may you spend some quality time with your family, loved ones and some gorgeous reads over the holidays! Yes, good food included in those wishes :)

Hugs and love to you all xxx

Karina

Christmas With Elizabeth Hunter!



Merry Christmas, Monsters

source


Javi’s arms were crossed. His face was the sternest he could make it. “Kate, we have to do it.”
She shook her head.
“There’s two of them now,” he continued. “We’ve gotten away with the hippy artist excuse for three years now. You’ve pacified her with a shit-ton of artfully framed baby pictures—“
Beautiful pictures.” She looked up from the drafting table in her office. “Stunning pictures.” Kate gestured at the walls where dozens of pictures of three-year-old Dora and her baby brother were framed. “Our children are gorgeous. Do any of her grandma posse have pictures of their grandkids that look like they could hang in a museum?” Kate raised her eyebrows. “I don’t think so.”
And they said parenthood made you humble.
Javi dragged a stool from the workbench and sat on it, caging her with his knees. “Katie, my mother has been calling me ever since Gus was born, and I can’t keep putting her off. She’s getting my sister in on it now. Mari called me yesterday. She threatened to withhold tamales if we don’t get a family picture taken.”
He heard the small gasp.
“That’s low, Javi.”
He stifled a smile and rested his chin on her shoulder, wrapping his arms around her waist, which was still soft, her belly still round from the baby, even though Gus was almost six months old. She’d lost the baby weight faster with Dora, but she was holding onto it a little longer with Gus. Javi had to admit he kind of liked it. Kate could be a stubborn pain-in-the-ass, especially when she was working. She bossed around models and was a tyrant on shoots. It was part of what made her so good.
But under that exacting exterior, his wife was a total softie. Javi liked a little evidence of it around her waist.
Kate said, “Mari knows I can’t make tamales! What kind of monster would withhold Christmas tamales from her sister-in-law, beloved brother, and adorable niece and nephew?”
“The kind of monster who wants a real family picture for Christmas. All four of us in the same frame, sent out in the form of Christmas cards or at least an Instagram picture that she can share with her friends.”
Kate’s head swung around. “She has an Instagram addiction, and I’m not going to feed it. That’s enabling.”
He laughed. “Then Christmas cards. We’ll take pictures, and I’ll take care of ordering everything and sending it out. You know, we get cards every year, but we never send any.”
“We can send cards.” She shrugged and closed her laptop. “You don’t need pictures for cards.”
“What is the issue with family pictures?” He didn’t understand it. Kate took a million pictures of the kids. Lots of pictures of him. And when he snapped pictures with his phone, she wasn’t one of those women who ducked away or hid. She wasn’t camera-shy. “I don’t get it. Why am I the one having to argue for this one? I would think family pictures would be right up your alley.”
“Because I’m a female photographer? That’s sexist.”
He pinched her waist. “Because you’re constantly taking pictures of the kids, Ms. Mitchell, famous photographer. You’ve put them in gallery shows, but we can’t take a family picture?”
She sighed. “Family pictures are just so…”
“What? Normal?”
“Posed!” She curled her lip. “It’s just so superficial. ‘Look at our beautiful family who got all dressed up in fancy clothes to go randomly wander in the woods where we happened upon a professional photographer who will photoshop all the runny noses and zits out of our family portrait!’ Everyone takes stupid posed pictures this time of year and it does nothing to capture who they really are or how they feel about each other, which is the whole point of photographing subjects in the first place.”
God, save me from overthinking artists.
“Kate.” He hugged her around the waist and Kate put her hands on his, leaning back into his shoulder. “Katie…”
“Don’t start with the sweet voice.”
He kissed her neck.
“Oh… that’s nice.” Her voice was softer. A little breathless. “You didn’t shave today, did you?”
“Nope.”
He nibbled up her neck until she was suitably pliable.
“We’re grown-ups,” Javi whispered. 
“I’m feeling pretty grown up at the moment, thanks.”
He grinned against her skin. “We have two cool little kids with grandmas and aunties and friends that love them. We gotta do some of this stuff. Neither of us are Facebook people. It’s important to my family. And you can’t tell me your mom hasn’t said anything about it.”
“She does. Of course she does. But I ignore her.”
“Because she doesn’t have tamales to threaten you.”
“If she’d known how effective they were as a threat, she would have learned how to make them years ago.”
Javi held her around the waist. “We need to take Christmas pictures this year.”
Kate groaned. “I love your sister, but I hate her a little right now, too.” She turned and kissed Javi’s rough cheek. “Fine. We’ll take Christmas pictures.”
He smiled. “Why don’t I call Dee and see when she can come over to the house?”
“What?” Kate frowned. “Javi, I can take our pictures. It’s not that big a deal.”
Oh no…
“But…” He had to tread carefully here. Giant egos were in play. “Dee does Reed and Sam’s pictures every year. She’s really good with kids. I’m not saying you can’t, but you’ve said yourself that kids on photo shoots are… problematic.”
Actually, Kate said child models were a nightmare and slightly frightening because of their plastic smiles, but he wasn’t going to remind her of that. Dora was about as far from plastic as a kid could get.
Kate waved a hand. “Sam and Reed have four kids under the age of five. We have one three-year-old and a baby who can’t walk yet. I can handle two kids.”
“They have four kids? I could have sworn they had five.”
“No, they just always keep one or two extra around. Sam says it makes the other ones behave better.”
“Huh.” He tucked that one away for future reference. At age three, Dora was happy as a pig in mud to tag along with daddy on his days watching her. But his daughter liked to talk. A lot. Maybe they should find another kid to borrow until Gus could talk back.
“Don’t worry.” Kate patted his arm. “If I can handle musicians, I can handle a three-year-old. They’re practically the same thing.”
~

Christmas With Penny Reid!


Beard in Waiting
by
Penny Reid
“You know what’s difficult?” The actress gracing my television screen sniffed, blinking away tears and lowering her eyes to the snowy sidewalk. “Loving you, Carter.” She shook her head and my heart twisted wistfully and she added on a whisper, “Loving. You.”
The camera panned to the hero, his square jaw tense, his eyes and mouth betraying inner turmoil. Tall, dark, and handsome hurried forward and he embraced his love while emotion rushed to my eyes. The music swelled. He cupped her jaw. He kissed her.
I sighed.
My daughter also sighed.
Ah… fictional love.
I glanced at Jennifer, she glanced at me, and then we sighed together.
“That was a good one.” Her eyes were shining and her smile bloomed sweet and misty.
Our tradition every December had always been to watch Hallmark Christmas Movies. Despite everything we’d been through over the last year, all the changes—good and bad—we hadn’t broken this tradition. I loved a good, heartfelt, uncomplicated, fictional romance. I always had. And so did my Jennifer.
“Pass the clicker.” I made a grabbing motion with my hand and she passed it over.
“My favorite was the second one, with the animal shelter and the vet.” Jennifer’s smile was dreamy and warm.
“That one was good. The production values are getting better every year,” I commented, scooching forward on the sofa as my eyes moved over the mess of hot chocolate, marshmallows, and the remains of Jennifer’s fantastic ginger bread cookies.
She’d used orange peel in the cookies, almond extract in the frosting, and candied ginger as part of the decoration—all her idea. I grinned at the spread of sugar.
Everything we’d just eaten used to be contraband under this roof. My husband—soon to be my ex-husband—hadn’t tolerated sweets in the house throughout our marriage. Truth was, he had me so keyed up about gaining weight, I’d spilled a lot of that anxiety over to my daughter.
Shame on me.
In the year since I’d kicked the bastard out, I’d put on fifteen pounds and enjoyed every single bite of the cakes and cookies and wine and cocktails that helped me get here.
“It’s getting late and the forecast called for snow overnight. Do you want any more of these gingerbread men?” Jennifer reached to wrap up the expertly decorated cookies.
“Just leave them be.” I stood, shooing away her efforts to tidy.
“Momma, let me help clean up.”
“No need. You’re right, it’s getting late. That man of yours will be storming in here any second if I don’t get you home on time.”
Jennifer pressed her lips together, looking pleased but also suppressing laughter. She knew what I was talking about.
“He didn’t storm in.”
“He did too. And he was wielding an axe.”
Jennifer laughed. “That was part of my Halloween costume.”
“Red Riding Hood and the Woods-woman.” I lifted my eyes to the heavens.
“Cletus made an adorable Red Riding Hood.” Jennifer pulled on her coat and turned for the door. “Admit it.”
“He dressed up like the hood of a car, Jennifer. A red car. He’s a nut,” I said, because he was a nut. My son-in-law was one of a kind.
“You know you adore him.” She prodded, wagging her eyebrows.
“Of course I do. But I wish he wouldn’t hide mistletoe all over my house. If he wants to kiss his wife then he should kiss his wife. He doesn’t need to bring a hemiparasitic plant into the house or make up stories about it being good luck.”
“He didn’t say it was good luck. He said it would—”
“’Deliver unto me a very merry Christmas.’ Yes. I remember his pronouncement.” I dismissed Cletus’s prediction and gazed at my daughter with warm affection. “I think I’ve found all of the bunches he left tied to the ceiling, thank goodness. Obviously, he loves you. Actually, it’s obvious he more than loves you. He worships you. And I’m glad because I don’t want you to settle for anything less.”
She gave me a tight, bracing smile, but said nothing. I knew why. She didn’t want me to continue, she didn’t want me to say what was on my mind.
But I couldn’t help it.
“And another thing—”
“Oh dear Lord, please don’t say it!”
“I hope he makes sure you orgasm before he does. Every. Single. Time. Do you hear me? A man—if he’s worth his salt—can do it. He can do it several times before, during, and after he pleases himself.”
I spoke from experience.
Granted, my experience was relatively new, but it was real-world experience nevertheless. Kip, my ex, may have been as skilled as a handless, tongueless eunuch, but I knew for a fact—FOR A FACT—that not all men were terrible between the sheets. In fact, some men were very, very good between the sheets.
Or on top of the sheets.
Or on top of a table.
Or on the floor.
“Momma . . .“ Jennifer covered her face and shook her head. “Can we not talk about this?”
“If that man truly loves you, he’ll keep you satisfied. I don’t care how many times I have to say it, I don’t want you to—”
“You don’t want me to waste twenty-six years without an orgasm and fifteen years without sex. Yes. I know.” She finished for me, her soft voice held an edge of exhausted mortification.
But I didn’t care if this discussion embarrassed her. “You need to stand up for yourself early on in the relationship, otherwise men will just walk all over you and steal your feminine power.”
Her hands fell away from her face and she opened her arms, an exasperated expression on her pretty features. “I have to go.”
“You know I tell you these things because I care about you and your feminine power.” I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed as she groaned unhappily. Ignoring the sound, I continued. “I’m ashamed of myself that I never talked to you about these things, that it took your father cheating for me to open my eyes. I’ve been watching those videos and following that blog, about sexual healing, and I think you should too.”
“I’m not watching your videos, momma.”
“I wish you would. That woman is so knowledgeable and she’ll teach you how to please yourself—”
“I NEED TO LEAVE!”
I may have held on too long, held her too tightly, but . . . I missed her. And I missed hugs.
My ex may not have been good for much, but once my business started turning a good profit, he’d been free with his hugs. He’d been stingy with everything else, though. I’d recently tried to remember the last time we’d kissed and I couldn’t.
In retrospect, given all the facts, I should have realized his abhorrence for good food was the first sign that his soul was black as midnight.
I could have blamed my blindness on being so young when we got married, but I wouldn’t. I didn’t shirk my responsibility. I accepted and I learned from it and I moved on.
Granted, I’d been seventeen and he’d been twenty seven. For so many years, where he led I followed. Eventually, I found my footing with business, came into my own with the hotel and the bakery. I’d been running all over hell's half acre trying to be successful, to please him, to make him proud. I’d succeeded making money, but in every other way that mattered, he’d been in control.
The second sign of his dark heart was his antipathy about my satisfaction in the bedroom. He didn’t care whether or not I orgasmed during sex, he never had. As far as I was concerned, that fact alone officially made him evil incarnate.
And the third sign was how he treated our children.
Actually, that hadn’t been a sign. How he treated my sweet children was a neon billboard, but I’d been too stupid and stubborn and—
“Momma. Please. I have to go.”
Sighing, I released my daughter, a twinge of guilt making it difficult to breathe, and nodded. “Alright. But be safe.”
Jennifer gave me one more smile and I admired my beautiful daughter—beautiful inside and out—and couldn’t help but feel sad that she’d been forced to be strong in spite of her father, not because of him.
She turned for the foyer and I trailed after her. “Are you warm enough? Can I send you home with anything?”
“No. I’m good. Thank you, momma.”
“Okay.” I fretted. Watching Jennifer leave never got easier. I longed for the days of her childhood. I would have done so many things differently.
So many things . . .
Before I knew it, my girl was out the door, in her car, and waving from the driver’s seat. I waved back, pulling my cardigan tighter around my shoulders and rubbing my arms as I fought a shiver.
It was cold. Cold to the tune of twenty-seven degrees and on the verge of snowing. Best she goes home now, before the roads get slick.
Once her taillights disappeared down the driveway I closed the door and locked it, allowing myself one more nostalgic sigh before turning back for the living room, glancing at the Christmas tree, and crossing to the couch.
I was alone.
So I picked up a cookie and walked to my bedroom.
Vilma—the life coach I’d been following on social media since my separation—said that I needed to reclaim my feminine power. I’d given it away over the course of my bad marriage, given it to my husband every day I didn’t demand his respect and support, demand that he be a husband to me in all the ways that mattered.
Before I’d discovered Vilma, I’d made a few reckless choices. One in particular that—though I didn’t regret it, didn’t regret him and what had happened between us—I realized now it hadn’t been healthy behavior.
Sure, he’d administered my first orgasm since high-school (so my second orgasm ever). And that same night he’d also given me my third, fourth, and fifth. But he wasn’t . . . well, we weren’t suited. And that was that.
Vilma said the worst thing to do after the end of a marriage was jump into bed with someone else, try to fill the void with another person, and I’d done just that.
But now I knew better.
Therefore, he and our night together were firmly in the past. As part of my healing process, I found pleasure in myself whenever I noticed being alone. It was part of learning to love myself, who I was. I needed to be not just enough, but more than that. I was my best friend, my best partner, my best lover.
I took this advice very seriously and credited it with the permanent, satisfied smile I wore most days.
With the warm feelings still floating around in my belly from five hours of Hallmark movies, I crossed to my dresser and took out the black nightie trimmed with red lace, divested myself of clothes, and took my time slipping it on.
Then I let my hair down, eying myself in the mirror and wondering for maybe the hundredth time since separating from Kip whether or not I should dye it red.
I’d always wanted to be a redhead. I’d talked about it for years, but Kip said no one would take me seriously if I did.
Well, screw him.
I decided then and there that I would make an appointment with Darla for after Christmas and dye my hair red as a cardinal’s feathers. Leaving my bedroom dressed only in the nightie—because, why not? I was by myself and it was four days after Christmas. I’d taken the entire week off from work. I could walk around this house naked as a possum if I wanted, no one would see or care.
I tiptoed to the living room and grabbed another cookie, washing it down with a cup of eggnog—the good stuff with generous amounts of rum and brandy, not the store bought imitation for Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists—then packed away the remainder of our picnic.
But I did grab the bottle of brandy and a lowball glass.
As soon as the living room was tidy, I claimed the chair closest to the gas lit fireplace, snuggled under a blanket, poured myself two fingers of brandy, and picked up my eReader.
Since Jennifer’s relationship with Cletus Winston started last year, I’d become friendly with his only sister, Ashley. And Ashley was a reader. And Ashley had given me a list of the best dirty books to read during my alone time.
Suffice to say, Ashley Winston-Runous was now one of my favorite people on the planet.
The wind kicked up, whistling through the trees and windows. I noticed the snow coming down just before I lost myself to my book. About a half-hour later, the lights flickered off, then on, then off again. I glanced around, seeing they weren’t coming back on, and shrugged. I had my fire, blanket, and brandy to keep me warm. My eReader was fully charged and backlit. If needs be, I could sleep by the fireplace.
An hour passed. Then another. Maybe another after that. I didn’t know, I lost track of time. It was a real good book. The plot was better than the sex scenes, so I kept on reading. I was just coming to the second to last chapter—where all the good stuff happens—when a knock sounded on my front door.
Startled, I glanced at the clock over the fireplace. It was past midnight.
Now who in tarnation—
Another knock followed, louder this time and lasting for a longer period of time.
Frowning, I reluctantly set my eReader to one side and wrapped myself in the large blanket. The unknown person knocked a third time, even more insistent than before.
“I hear you, I hear you. Keep your britches on,” I muttered, making sure the blanket covered me from neck to ankle, then squinted through the peephole.
Oh my God . . .
It was dark, and I couldn’t see his face, but I knew who it was.
I knew.
Startled, I stiffened and reared back, my heart jumping to my throat.
“Diane?” he called, his Texas drawl meeting my ears and melting bones.
I blinked into the darkness, holding my breath, unsure how to proceed.
“Open the door, gorgeous,” he said, “It’s cold out here.”

Christmas With Mel Sterling!


Winterheart

by Mel Sterling


It was snowing at last. Small flakes, the sort that would keep coming down for hours, sifting and hissing along the iced-over tree limbs with a noise like sugar sprinkled on the surface of a well-scrubbed kitchen table.

Thomas rubbed his hands together rapidly, kindling warmth with friction. He wasn't sure why the snow made him think of a warm kitchen where a kind, pretty woman worked with dough and sweetening. The more he was with Tess, the more he remembered what it had been like to be human, two hundred years and more ago. Winter had finally come to Forest Park, pushing aside the tenacious and dreary autumn. The solstice neared. He felt it in his trow bones, in the slowing of his blood as the season tilted into darkness and chill. In the deadening cold of the Queen's ragged gold and bone band around his upper arm.

With the coming of the snow, the danger of another night of ice coating Tess's birch-girl boughs and threatening to break her slender fingers had lessened. Thomas stepped close to her, where she stood rooted in the earth in a tiny copse of other birch girls—maidens already asleep for the winter. A big leaf maple or two loomed over the slender birches, branches bare of leaves but still green with heavy sleeves of moss. Beyond the maples, the ubiquitous and towering firs.

It was to the unsleeping evergreens that Tess was secretly listening, twining her thinnest, longest roots with theirs. The firs heard everything that went on in the Queen's fae mound below their roots, and sometimes spoke of the things that mattered to the tree-folk. And now, so did Tess.

Thomas put his warmed hands on her twiggy fingers to melt the thin rime that had reformed before the freezing rain changed into something friendlier.

Tess's birch-girl eyes opened, shadow-dark, high on her trunk and fringed with curled-back cuts of silvery bark. She was not asleep, not yet. Not while Thomas could bring her enough warmth to keep a tiny bit of sap flowing. Tess had work to do. She could sleep later, after they got the answers Hunter, the Queen's rebellious and powerful rival, required. The answers they all required, for without those answers, Hunter would do nothing to eradicate the spells the queen had placed upon the two of them—Thomas, a half-made trow, bound to do the Queen's will so long as her band encircled his arm. Tess, made a birch girl at the Queen's bitter whim, for Tess had destroyed the Queen's power this past Allantide, thwarting the Queen's moonlit gambit to wrest new fae territory from the humans of Portland.

"So cold," she whispered to Thomas. "But it's not as cold as the dawn was."

"The snow will warm the air. You're beautiful," Thomas whispered back. "I wish you could see yourself. Silver and white. You shimmer."

"I feel so stiff." Between his palms, her fingers flexed slightly. "Your hands are warm. They help." Her lashes lifted a little as she slanted him a glance. "I know you stay here for me. You could be inside somewhere, spending the winter warm and safe and dry. I...think I'd be all right out here. I'm cold and sleepy, but that's all."

"You have to stay awake to listen to the trees. Learn what the enemy is planning. Besides." Thomas pressed a kiss to the corner of the gash in the bark that was Tess's mouth. "You wouldn't leave me on Allantide. I won't leave you now. The solstice is near."

Tess gave a small shiver. "Is the winter solstice as nasty a time as the fae Halloween was? Do we have to be on guard against the Wild Hunt again?"

"Midwinter is very dark, even in the fae halls. The pixies have either died out or crept away to sleep until the spring, like the trees themselves."

Tess turned her face away from him, and Thomas knew she was remembering the pixies that had betrayed them to the Queen on Allantide night. "Nasty things. Serves them right, to die."

"Many of the fae sleep through the long nights, or are slow and tired, like me. But there are a few for whom the winter is the finest time of all. Holda, for one. She who brings the snow." He looked up, drawing Tess's gaze to where the snowflakes sifted down, catching on everything, beginning to build up like salt spray at the shore. "Those creatures who delight in the wind, or leading travelers astray."

"Tell me again how the fae lured you in, if their world is so horrid." Tess pulled her hands from his and flexed the fingers. "That's better. Thank you."

Thomas smiled and kissed her again. "There are beautiful things, as well, like you, my ghille dhu. My birch girl. My Tess. Whisper to me what the firs and maples have said today."

"They've been talking about last night's ice. A few lost limbs—I mean boughs. They don't have a trow to keep them warm." She smiled at him, and Thomas felt his heart thump hard a few times. "A maple somewhere on the north side fell, but she was old. They say her trunk was weak. Some bogles have dug a den beneath one of the solitary spruces and are making a nuisance of themselves. A Will o' the Wisp led someone into that boggy place just over the ridge, sometime before dawn. That is all."

A new voice, rough as stone grinding against stone, shattered their privacy. "I care not for the sputterings of swamp gas. Even less for the fate of the human foolish enough to follow it. The bogles, however. That interests me. Bogles outside the mound, at the solstice."

Christmas With Julia Kent!


Christmasly Obedient

by Julia Kent


Jeremy dragged the sleigh across the dense snow, his vision obscured by the snowflakes floating before him, fat and lazy but thick as cotton. Living on the coast in Maine, just far enough north to catch snowstorms that immobilized them for days, was beautiful.

But a pain in the ass when it came to simple tasks.

Lydia had asked him to cut a small Christmas tree for their cabin, and a larger one to take to Boston tonight to deliver to Jeddy’s Diner, the restaurant her grandmother and brother co-owned. They’d surprise Madge and Caleb at the diner’s annual Christmas Eve celebration. Lydia’s mother, Sandy, had decided she needed to have the whole family visit her mother. Madge’s heart attack and octogenarian status made time seem to close off, tunneling to a pinpoint.

They needed to enjoy Madge while there was still light. Madge was a tough old bat with an iron will and a no-bullshit approach to life, but even she wasn’t immortal.

Their partner, Mike, was sick with a cold, though Jeremy suspected that being mansick was an excuse to get out of this miserable tree chore. Mike was probably back at home, feet before the fire, laughing his ass off at Jeremy’s gullibility.

“Fuck you,” he muttered to himself. Cursing Mike didn’t make him feel any better, though.

Oddly enough, the sun was shining in the sky, the snowstorm combined with the sunshine. The paradox threw him for a loop. How could the two co-exist?

Then he laughed, a self-deprecating sound as he trudged ahead toward the thick bank of fir trees.

Might as well ask the same question about him and Mike. How could two totally different people be perfectly suited for Lydia?

“Hey!” someone shouted, a man familiar to Jeremy, though he couldn’t see the person. “Jeremy? You out here?”

Adam. Lydia’s brother was home from being on the road, where he represented the marketing and social media interests of the family-run campground. A dark figure, gray and big, became more clear as he got closer. Adam dressed like Jeremy in a thick down coat, with black ski gloves, a balaclava covering his bearded face. A big guy, he wasn’t quite as tall as Jeremy – who was more than six and a half feet tall – but he made up for the difference in muscle.

Hulking and burly, with the grace of a guy who charmed people for a living, Adam was a perfect bland of rural Maine and sophisticated Boston.

Eyes like Lydia’s, a pale amber, poked out under the hood of his coat. “Find the right one?”

“Not yet. I’m half afraid to start chopping down a tree trunk and find myself face-to-face with a moose.”

“I don’t blame you. I’ve seen two of them out here before. I’d be more worried about bears, though.”

Jeremy jumped. “Bears?” He nearly pissed himself.

Adam shrugged. At least, Jeremy assumed he did. Hard to tell under all those layers of clothing and coat. “Just don’t show your fear.” His eyes narrowed. “Like you are right now, Jeremy.” His voice dropped low, a man’s timbre that made Jeremy feel stupid. “They’ll smell it on you.”

“That’s because bears fucking terrify me,” he said slowly, not afraid to admit it. “Why do I live here when we could just move to San Diego and live on the beach?”

Adam chuckled and started up a small hill, where a perfect cluster of firs beckoned. “Because my mother would kill you if you made Lydia leave.”

“Get killed by a bear, get killed by Sandy. Looks like my options are limited.”

“I’d take being killed by a bear over Mom any day. Better odds of escaping,” Adam declared. Yanking the sleigh parallel to the tree Adam was eyeing, Jeremy took in some deep breaths, staring up at the tall pines that disappeared like power lines going straight up to the moon. The snow was slowing down. He felt each flake hit his cheeks, the cool landing making him realize he hadn’t shaved in days. Each white snowkiss turned into a wet smack as the powder melted on his stubble, dripping down his chin and making his neck wet.

A sudden flash of Lydia naked, riding him, came with the visceral feeling. He hardened, pulse racing, suddenly needing her so madly his legs started to turn toward home.

“How about this one? Thick around the middle, nice curve to her, and I’ll bet she’ll last as long as we need her,” Adam said, clearly evaluating the tree but fuckall if his words didn’t make Jeremy hornier for Lydia.

Adam’s sister.

“Uh, yeah,” Jeremy stammered, hoping to God Adam couldn’t read minds. “Looks good.”

“Grandma will love it. She’ll hang some Christmas truck nuts all over the damn thing and cackle with glee.”

“Christmas...truck nuts? Do I dare ask?”

“You really want to know?” Adam asked with a laugh every single member of the Charles family used when they talked about Madge.

“No.”

With an expert’s hand that Jeremy appreciated, Adam got down to business, clearing smaller branches from the bottom of the fir, then taking it down with ten minutes of ax work. Five minutes later Jeremy helped him haul the tree onto the sleigh.

“You do the smaller one,” Adam offered, pressing the ax handle into Jeremy’s right hand. Lydia’s father, Pete, did this – showed you how to do something, expected you to pay attention, then made you do it yourself.

Jeremy smiled to himself as he imitated Adam, moving slower. Pete had taught him to take great care around sharp, big blades. He handled the ax with a reverence befitting a tool that could take down a small tree.

And soon enough, the whole thing fell to the side, a muffled flumpf! on the snow indicating his success.

“Well done,” Adam praised him. Thunder rumbled suddenly in the sky. Surely Jeremy was mistaken, his ears confusing something else for the sound.

Christmas With Grace Draven!


OAK, HOLLY, AND THREE VEXED GHOSTS
by
Grace Draven

Copyright © 2016 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
_____________________________________________

source

Gideon scowled at his and Nathaniel’s reflections in the full length mirror residing in a corner of the library. “We look ridiculous.”

Nathaniel adjusted the crown of oak leaves and acorns perched atop his head, then brushed away imaginary specks of dust from his lapels. He eyed Gideon’s own crown of holly and red berries. “Our countenances are far too strange to ever look ridiculous, only frightening. Or on better days such as these, merely odd. Besides, we’re doing this for a worthy cause.”

“I wouldn’t bother were it not for the fact that Lilah has badgered her mother and me nearly into Bedlam with her request for a duel between the Oak King and the Holly King as part of the Yule celebration.” Gideon reached up to move his crown, hissing when the needle tip of a holly leaf pierced his finger. He jerked his hand away to wipe it across his coat, leaving a thread of silver blood across the fabric. “Already have first blood, and we haven’t even crossed swords yet.”

Nathaniel paid only half a mind to Gideon’s complaints. He cocked his head, listening for a moment to the sweet sound of female voices coming from the parlor. His Lenore played hostess this Yule evening to an unlikely crowd of holiday celebrants while he and Gideon readied themselves to take on the roles of dueling pagan kings.

His mother-in-law had deigned to grace Nathaniel and Lenore’s home with her disapproving presence for a few hours, claiming the chair closest to the fire that fed merrily off a Yule log in the hearth. Jane Kenward’s face had pinched so tightly at Gideon’s arrival, she looked as if she’d eaten a basketful of green persimmons. Her expression had eased only a little when she caught sight of Gideon’s elegant housekeeper Rachel Wakefield and Rachel’s young daughter Lilah.

Lenore’s mother had then downed two glasses of sherry in quick succession when Nathaniel’s friend and erstwhile senior office, Nettie Widderschynnes, sailed into the parlor, decked from head to toe in a flamboyant array of striped skirts paired with military jacket and enough beads, baubles and feathers tucked into her numerous braids to hide a lost city. Lilah had been enthralled, Jane appalled and Nettie blithely unconcerned by it all. Even now, Nathaniel could hear her entertaining Rachel’s daughter with stories of her adventures as airship captain on the HMA Pollux.

“Your mother-in-law is certainly a sour creature.” Gideon raised his rapier and practiced an en garde followed by a parry-reposte, barely missing slicing the fabric of a nearby chair. “I’m pathetically out of practice,” he groused.

Nathaniel danced nimbly out of striking range and reached for his own rapier. “A bonekeeper for a husband isn’t exactly what Jane Kenward dreamed of for her only child when it came to likely husbands.”

“She didn’t like you even before you were transformed.” Gideon saluted with his sword, his otherworldly gaze dark and piercing and a mirror of Nathaniel’s.

To others, they might look like spectral siblings for their coloring and unique appearances. They weren’t, though the blood coursing through their veins now was far more familial than that of the brothers and sisters with whom they’d once shared parents.

Nathaniel shook his head, careful not to dislodge his crown, and grinned. “No, she didn’t, so the idea that I might meet an untimely end at the tip of your blade and make her daughter a sought-after widow has likely drawn her from her house to ours.”

Gideon cocked an eyebrow. “Surely she knows a pinprick from one of these blades isn’t enough to kill a Guardian? Besides, this is Yule and you’re playing the Oak King. You’re supposed to win this duel and dispatch me.”

Nathaniel took a moment to practice his own fencing maneuvers. “Hope springs eternal.”

He cursed when Gideon suddenly shot across the room in front of him, narrowly avoiding a skewering from Nathaniel’s blade.

Gideon plastered himself to the frost-glazed window to peer into the rectory garden, buried under an ever deepening shroud of snow. He motioned for Nathaniel to join him. “Do you see that? You’ve someone slinking about your garden. Bloody resurrectionists.” He uttered the name as if it were a vile taste on his tongue.

A hot rage boiled inside Nathaniel’s veins, incinerating every last speck of holiday cheer. He strode to the door, sword still unsheathed. “They think it safe to do a little grave robbing while we’re in here instead of out there. I look forward to proving them wrong.”

Gideon was on his heels as he yanked the library door open and sprinted into the foyer for the front door. Lenore peered at them from the parlor’s threshold with Rachel looking over her shoulder. Her lovely features were flushed pink from the parlor’s warmth. “Nathaniel,” she called. “What’s wrong?”

Gideon answered for him. “Stay in the house. We’ll return shortly.”

Outside, the air hung heavy with fat snowflakes and froze the lungs with every inhalation. Fleet and silent as shadows, the two Guardians raced around the house to the back garden, swords drawn.

Nathaniel pulled up short and stared, bewildered, at the trio of figures standing under the bare-limbed oak that shivered in the December wind. Beside him, Gideon muttered an unintelligible curse.

Not resurrectionists. Not even living men, but ghosts, and some of the oddest Nathaniel had ever seen during his tenure as Guardian of Highgate Cemetery. One was a spindly old man with the shriveled face of a prune that somehow reminded Nathaniel of Jane Kenward at her most disapproving. He wore a necklace of chains around his stooped shoulders. They clanked and rattled with an ethereal echo.

Beside him towered a ginger-haired giant with a gloriously full red beard. Unlike his aged, rickety companion, this man looked in his full, potent prime. Dressed in the robes of a medieval bishop with a lush crown of holly on his head to put Gideon’s to shame, he clutched a silver chalice from which he quaffed regularly and wiped away the dribbles with his sleeve.

The third spirit was even stranger than the first two, a cloaked and hooded figure with only a black abyss for a face and dark, skeletal hands that drifted in the air like the ragged feathers of a dead crow.

Ghosts regularly haunted Highgate and were often Nathaniel’s companions as he patrolled the cemetery and kept watch over the graves. They didn’t frighten him. He was a shade himself in some ways, as was Gideon and the other five men Gideon had rescued from the madman who created them.

Still, these three specters were unusual as far as specters went and why they chose to lurk about his wife’s back garden, Nathaniel couldn’t begin to guess. “Who are you?”

Christmas With 2016 Feature Schedule


Hello, ladies and gents!
This is my favorite time of the year on the blog, because awesome authors gather together here on Nocturnal Book Reviews and surprise the heck out of us, readers, with their gorgeous, festive stories.

As usual, I am deeply grateful and saying huge thanks to all the authors and friends participating in Christmas With feature this year.
Let all the fun begin!

In order of appearance (links will be added as the stories go live):


Huge hugs, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from all of us!

Want more? See the rest of free stories here.
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