Masters of Seduction: six original short stories featuring a magic mirror pendant that guides couples on a seductive path to their own true love’s destiny. Follow the mirror as it travels from medieval England to present day Texas.
What the Heart Sees, by Marsha Canham: A knight defying Prince John’s edicts risks all with a forester’s daughter whose chance encounter with a blind jeweler offers the only possibility for escape… and for love.
A Rough Wooing, by Virginia Henley: After Scottish beauty Douglas Elliot takes advantage of a raid on English Border Warden Sir Lancelot Greystoke’s lands to steal his antique mirror pendant, only a pardon from the new king can effect a union between these two reckless lovers.
Heart’s Desire, by Jacquie D’Alessandro: On her way to London to attend Queen Victoria’s coronation and to announce her own engagement, Callie Albright’s stop in the village where she spent her childhood brings her in contact with a man and an antique mirror––and both will change her destiny.
And Then There Was You, by Jill Gregory: When childhood friends Georgianna and Gabe, separated by the years, meet again at a Wyoming ranch, the woman wounded by love and the gunslinger who’s vowed never to marry find in each other the one thing they weren’t searching for––love
All That Glitters, by Sherri Browning Erwin: Seventies socialite Elyse Fontaine, obsessed with immortality (and vampires!), finds that things aren’t always what they seem when she meets mysterious rocker Bastian Blaze on the run from the law.
Happily Ever After, by Julie Ortolon: When Chloe Davis finds an ancient mirror pendant on the beach at Pearl Island, she sees it as a gift of acceptance from the B&B’s star-crossed ghosts––until childhood acquaintance Luc Renard arrives from New Orleans with a tale about the mirror that could steal Chloe’s happiness––or lead to her own happy ending.
The cover art was a collaboration between Julie Ortolon and myself. As mentioned before, we think it’s the first digital stepback, a throwback to the 80’s when Publishers spared no expense putting stepback covers on romance novels, often spending more on the inside artwork than the outer cover. We all have spiffy title pages too, which will hopefully show up in all ereaders, but if not, here’s the example of mine, along with an excerpt from What the Heart Sees.
The cry went from man to man along the castle battlements. The foresters roused themselves from a weary doze and scrubbed their eyes with fists. Most were hooded against the early morning drizzle, though it was barely thicker than the puffs of breath that misted around their faces. They reached for bows, thinking another alarm had sounded, but as there were no missiles whistling overhead, they eased back and looked instead at the master-at-arms who had made the call. He stood at the top of the steps that led from the east tower down to the lower rooftop of the keep. He was armored, coiffed, and wore a steel helmet with a thick nasal that hid most of his features.
Cassie stretched to ease the stiffness that came from dozing against a solid stone wall. Like the others, she took up her bow as she stood, a fine, strong weapon of English yew. Unlike the others who had left their bows strung, she bent the shaft and twisted the flax string until it was as tight as a whore’s heart, then fit it snug to the notch. A quick glance confirmed the supply of arrows within reach. Omfrie de Caux was a persistent bastard, she had to hand him that. This was the third call to arms since dawn; tempers among the defenders were growing frayed.
Belfontaine had been under heavy siege for three weeks now. De Caux had been sent by Prince John to oust Lord Thomas Purefoy from his stronghold, a task which was proving to be not as easy as the router had come to expect. Four of the neighboring demesnes had succumbed with barely any resistance, their lords dragged outside the shattered gates and forced to kneel to their conqueror, whereupon they had been hanged and burned.
The crime? Daring to question the regent’s right to levy taxes and scutage in a land already reeling from starvation and poverty. That he did so under the guise of raising the ransom demanded by the Holy Roman Emperor for the return of King Richard, held hostage these past six months, fooled no one. Not even the poorest crofter believed a single copper groat would end up anywhere but in the treasure box of John Lackland.
Those who protested or spoke out against the unlawful levies, found their castles assized, the walls breached, their villeins burned out of their cottages and slaughtered as they ran. On a clear night, from the top of Belfontaine’s battlements, distant orange blooms against the darkness had marked the fates of the neighboring baronies.
Belfontaine itself was situated on the western border of Lincolnshire. A massive structure situated on the top of a high hill, it boasted a large sprawling keep with towers at each corner. To reach that keep, attackers had to breach a seven foot thick outer wall guarded by tall barbican towers and a gate comprised of several layers of solid oak banded with iron.
De Caux had left Belfontaine to the last, for it was the largest and least accessible castle within his purview. A sheer drop into a steep ravine protected the northern walls, while a vast, cleared field several hundred feet wide made it impossible to approach the other three walls unseen. At the outset, De Caux had boastfully declared it might take him two days rather than the one to raise his pennon over the keep, but so far, he had been throwing his forces against the walls for twenty-two days and nights with little to show for it.
Cassie peered through the crenellated teeth of the battlement. De Caux’s men had burned the village the first day. The small, neat crofters cottages had been spread around the base of the hill, secure in the shadow of the castle walls. The mud and wattle huts were broken now, the thatched roofs had become gauntlets of flame in the night attack, and all that remained were charred heaps of rubble.
Cassie and her father had lived at the edge of the village closest to the forest. Her dark green eyes often looked longingly to that dense ring of greenwood, the trees so thick in places a man could not see his hand before his face.
There had been an instant in time, a moment following the sound of the alarm bells, when she and her father could have chosen to run for the forest rather than take shelter behind the castle gates. The woods were filled with bands of men—outlaws now by decree—who had fled before the burnings and killings. William Fletcher would have been welcomed into any of these vagabond troupes for like the name he bore, he was a bowyer and fletcher. His longbows, which stood as tall as a man, were made of carefully seasoned, straight-grained yew, and were nigh on unbreakable. Cassie had held one to hand since she could waddle upright on her own, and thus she had become his testing piece for new designs, slimmer grips, stronger arrows. Every archer who defended the castle walls had benefited from William’s expertise and Cassie’s skill, for who among them wanted to admit they could not hold their own against a mere slip of a girl?
Consequently, Belfontaine boasted the finest arbalesters in the kingdom, and it was in great part due to these archers that de Caux’s men had been held at bay for the past three weeks. They had discovered early in the siege that it was wisest to make their camp in the trees and not the open fields, and to remain behind the tangle of ferns and saplings during daylight hours. The field between the woods and the castle walls were littered with fools who sought to challenge this wisdom. Their bodies lay in blood-darkened patches of mud, a dozen or more quills sticking out of each calf and thigh—the only vulnerable places not protected by armor and chain mail. Porcupine legs, the defenders called them, for while each wound on its own might not be fatal, a dozen shafts piercing each leg soon caused a man to bleed out.
“They have been pounding for two days and nights now,” said John the verderer from his post beside her. “And look how cocky they grow.”
Cassie knuckled the last of the sleep out of her eyes and followed John’s pointed finger. There was movement at the edge of the trees, though the layer of mist made it difficult to see. Now and then she caught a glint of armor or a splash of color from a surcoat or gambeson. Most were dark blue emblazoned in gold with the arms of Omfrie de Caux; a fox and wolfhound rampant, snarling, claws and fangs bared.
“What do you suppose they are building?”
Cassie shrugged. “They were cutting down trees all week. A Trojan horse, perhaps?”
John arched an eyebrow. “A horse out of wood?”
“To present as a false gift,” she explained. “A tall wooden horse that would appear to be an offering of peace, but with a belly full of soldiers who come out after dark and slay everyone in the castle.”
“De Caux has done this at other castles?”
“No.” She laughed slightly. “No, ’tis a tale from ancientGreece. A famous battle fought at Troy. I could read it to you sometime if you like.”
His frown deepened. “Reading is for mendicants and clerks.”
“Reading teaches you from the experiences of others, some who lived a thousand years ago.”
“A thousand years?” He snorted. “De Caux is not that old.”
Cassie opened her mouth to comment but realized it would be useless and only make her head hurt as much as her body.
Coming as a timely interruption, she saw a commotion at the top of the tower steps. A pair of knights had climbed from the wall-walk and stood there talking to the master-at-arms.
Cassie’s skin flushed instantly warm and her belly made a gentle somersault. It was Lord Thomas Purefoy himself, come to inspect his castle’s defenses as he had done on several previous occasions since the siege began. He stood half a head taller than any other man on the rooftop. He had a face like a dark archangel, with high cheekbones, and a square jaw that was clean shaven in the Norman fashion in contrast to the Saxon shagginess of his villeins and tenants. He was every inch a knight. Broad shoulders and chest were heavy with muscle, as accustomed to wearing a hundredweight of chain mail as a forester was to the lightness of a linsey-woolsey shirt.
Beneath his burgundy and gold gambeson, Sir Thomas was wearing a short mail hauberk, the links glittering down his arms like the scales of a fish. The tight steel rings of his coif hid the wavy thickness of his hair, but she knew it to be almost blue-black and short-cropped. His long legs were encased in snug woolen hose that showed the shape of every muscle, every sinew, and, as he propped a boot on a wooden cask, the heavy maleness at the juncture of his thighs. Flushing even warmer, she forced herself to lower her eyes swiftly, lest she be caught trying to peek under the hem of his tunic.
Admiring the lord of the castle from afar was safe enough and Cassie had done so on many an occasion, but up close it was an entirely different matter. She could feel the blush staying stubbornly in her cheeks and she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other feeling other parts of her body affected by wicked thoughts. She was conscious of her own tawdry appearance. Her calf-skin leggings sagged from ankle to knee; the coarse wool of her tunic was filthy, having been lived in and slept in for the past fortnight. Her hair was scraped back and hung down her back in a grimy, tattered braid, and her hands… God’s teeth, her hands were black with dirt and shaking like those of a virgin on her wedding night.
As discreetly as she could, she slid behind John the verderer, using his bulk as a shield. With one green eye she peeked around his shoulder at the vaunted knight as he spoke to the guards and listened to the state of their defenses in this quadrant. They had tubs of oil and barrels of pitch that could be boiled and poured over the walls should any of de Caux’s men attempt to throw up ladders. The east tower being farthest from the verge of woods, they had the best archers culled from the foresters and huntsmen, and a ready supply of arrows.
As he listened, Sir Thomas nodded and moved toward the battlements. He walked with a slight limp, the result of an injury sustained while on Crusade. He had lost some toes, Cassie had heard from the gossips, but by the grace of God, not the whole foot. He had fought at Richard the Lionheart’s right hand side and that alone, in Cassie’s opinion, would have been worth the loss of the entire leg!
“It would appear your archers have been keeping de Caux’s head well down in his foxhole,” said the knight who had accompanied Sir Thomas to the tower.
Cassie leaned a little to see the speaker, for most men in helmets looked alike. She recognized the voice however, the sound was like two slabs of stone grinding together. Sir Hubert Longspree was the captain of the castle guard, craggy-faced and stout as a barrel.
“Well done, men,” Sir Thomas said as his sky-blue eyes swept around the battlements. Our fondest hope is that the regent’s puppet will tire of throwing himself against our walls and when he does, the victory may be credited in a large part to those here present.”
A cheer went up amongst the archers, for it was not often that knights acknowledged them as being of more use than softening a field before the true army of mounted warriors thundered out to do battle. There would be no thundering out of Belfontaine, however. There were less than twenty knights inside the walls and more than a hundred outside.
Sir Thomas paused by one of the men, who pulled himself up proudly and tugged a greasy forelock in deference. The pale blue gaze had been drawn to the archer’s weapon, one of William Fletcher’s making and while, as a knight, he would never deign to carry a bow into battle, he respected its power.
“Sir Hubert tells me some of your arrows have been able to pierce through chain mail. Is this correct?”
“Not mine, Sire,” said Alfred the Oaf. “I can pierce through skin and fur well enough, and mayhap a leather jerkin if it’s not too thick, but my arrows are not fit against iron.”
Sir Thomas tilted his head slightly as Sir Hubert murmured something in his ear.
“The girl, you say? Where?”
Sir Hubert scanned the row of grimy faces. “Cassandra, the fletcher’s daughter. Come forward and acknowledge your liege.”
Cassie closed her eyes briefly, braced herself, then stepped out of the shadow of John the verderer.
“Forward. To me, girl.”
Cassie obeyed the sound of grinding rocks and moved away from the wall, feeling the eyes of every man turning to watch.
Sir Thomas’s brows drew together as she approached, and with good reason. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. She was as slender as the bow she carried, with large green eyes and a face that belonged to a grimy little cherub.
“Sir Hubert informs me your arrows are the ones that have been piercing through mail. Is this true?”
Cassie moistened her lips. “They are my father’s arrows, my lord, I merely send them on their way.”
“And what makes these arrows so keen as to break through iron links?”
She kept her eyes focused on the toes of his boots as she handed him one of the ashwood arrows to inspect. The shaft was as long as her arm, the goosefeather fletching smooth and precisely trimmed. It was the tip, however, that varied from the blunt-nosed bodkins that were launched from most of the longbows. Made of twice-tempered steel, hammered flat and honed to a fine point, it could slice through leather like a knife and penetrate all but the thickest plates of jazzerant armor. The tip had another fearsome feature, one he acknowledged immediately with his soldier’s eye: It was double barbed, like a fish hook, and seated loose enough on the shaft that it would come off in the flesh and make even the smallest wound fatal.
“Why do all the men not have these arrows?”
“They take longer to make, my lord,” she answered quietly.
Sir Thomas narrowed his eyes. “And he trusts these few to you?”
The words a mere girl went unspoken, but she heard them as clear as the bell that tolled alarms. So did the men who knew her temper as well as her skill, and several of them made a sound in their throats, loud enough for Sir Thomas to take note.
The blue eyes scanned the faces, and their smiles faded. He looked back at Cassie, noting the two hot spots of color on her cheeks.
“I detect some champions among your peers. Before I can be convinced, however, I would see a demonstration.”
She raised her eyes then and looked calmly, directly into his. “I have but a score of barbed arrows left, my lord, yet if you would have me squander one by demonstrating that I can pluck an acorn off a tree branch, I would happily oblige.”
In the immediate silence that followed, Cassie nearly bit her tongue in half. Beside her, Sir Hubert’s chest was already swelling like a bladder filling with hot air. His face had darkened and his fists had clenched. He was a tic away from roaring at her insolence when Lord Purefoy chuckled and raised a gloved hand to stop him spluttering.
“Very well, girl. Come with me. I will choose a worthy acorn.”