Thursday, February 6, 2014
Free Read Thursday
The blog muscle didn't want to flex this morning, so here's an entire chapter from one of my Talbot's Peak WIPs. If you squint between the lines, you might pick up some writing tips, so it still qualifies as a blog.
The gist: Out-of-work journalist Chloe Stevens comes to Talbot's Peak, Montana to write a romance novel. Because she's fixated on vampires, she doesn't realize Talbot's Peak is a shapeshifter settlement. She doesn't even catch on that the two guys she's with are wolf shifters. Hey, Lois Lane was an award-winning ace reporter, and she never figured out Clark Kent was Superman. Tunnel vision will do that to you.
# # #
Pietro twirled her across the dance floor. The music belonged to another century, yet somehow her feet knew the steps. She wanted to believe it was instinct, and not the horrible possibility Leonid Krasski had revealed to her. She would not accept it, although all the evidence pointed to the inevitable.
I’m not the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. I can’t be!
“Your mind’s wandering,” Pietro whispered in her ear. “Am I such a boring partner?”
Aramilla clung to him desperately. She didn’t want to be a vampire queen. Krasski had been nothing but kind to her, but she could not see herself in his arms. His chilly touch revolted her. Even now she imagined his eyes upon her, watching her dance with her guard, a man who stirred her heart as no other. A man sworn to obey the vampire king. A man who was technically dead.
A man who set her heart aflutter with a whispery laugh across her lips.
“So it’s excitement you crave, is it? Then what say we change the pace a bit?”
From the sedate, measured steps of the waltz he suddenly swung her into a wild ‘50s jitterbug. They swept across the floor like a couple of dervishes, the brooding Brando and his bobby-soxer, not so brooding now but laughing in abandon. The older vampires stopped dead, as it were, and stared at them in something close to shock. None moreso than Krasski, seeing his woman, his wife in theory if not fact, laugh in another man’s arms
And a bare half-step behind him, the treacherous Haroun.
# # #
Now this was more like it, Chloe thought. This came a lot closer to her ideas of what small-town Montana should be like. Granted, there were more motorcycles parked out front than pickup trucks, and the music ran more toward rock than the expected country and Western. But this would give her a better vibe on Talbot’s Peak than a coffee shop or the diner or even the open streets. People let their hair down in bars, and inhibitions washed away under a stream of alcohol. The true nature of a town came out in its most popular bars.
Chloe’s impression of the nature of Talbot’s Peak could be summed up in one word: Weeeeiiiiirrrd.
Everything looked fine on the surface. The customers ate, drank, danced, made out with their partners and swore just like patrons in every halfway-decent bar across the country and probably several overseas. Chloe got an impression of a town that liked its fun and worked hard to play hard. Like tonight’s live band, a clearly local group. They had long hair, dressed in faux leopard skins and loincloths, and jumped around like a troop of baboons on speed. They seemed to favor Chili Peppers covers. Energy poured off them like sweat and practically held a gun to the audience’s heads, demanding they get up and dance. Which most of them did, sooner or later.
Only a handful of patrons stayed seated. They sipped their drinks and glowered at others with an intensity that prickled Chloe’s nape hairs. Jesus Pete, these people even brooded with gusto.
Trained to dig through deception, Chloe peered beneath the surface. Here was where the weird came into play. These people didn’t walk. They slouched, they stalked, they padded, they glided, in movements just a hair off human true. And the way they ate—Chloe had seen pit bulls gobble their meals with more finesse. These Peakers ate like they’d killed it themselves, and results of the next hunt might be iffy. There was quite a bit of stealing from each other’s plates. That’s where most of the swearing came in.
And they were watching her.
At first she tried to tell herself she was being paranoid. Hers was a new face in the bar. Naturally the regulars would want to check her out. It was the narrowed eyes and twitching noses and suspicious scowls that set her nerves on edge. Underneath the surface and off-human behavior she sensed a healthy distrust for outsiders. She, the living being, had walked into the vampires’ den, and the dead weren’t sending out the Welcome Wagon.
A wiry cowboy stalked past their table. He paused behind Chloe’s chair, and growled. No mistaking that sound for a mutter or a grunt. Dale tipped his hat back and showed his teeth. The cowboy uttered a genuine mutter and moved on.
Well, best defense and all. Chloe picked up her burger and ripped into it just like the diners at the tables around them. Was it her imagination, or did that bunch off to their left just relax a little?
“Now that’s what I like to see,” Ewan said. “A gal who enjoys a good meal.”
“It is good,” Chloe meant to say. With her mouth crammed full of grade-A beef, it came out more like itthood. Dale and Ewan seemed to catch the gist, because they smiled. Dale’s was more of a lip-twitch. Chloe counted that as forward progress.
What the hey, she might as well enjoy this. Her funds would be depleted soon, and she’d agreed to pick up the tab for this shindig. She began to understand why Peakers ate their food with such lusty desperation. What danger lurked in their collective background? What were they most afraid of?
Dale and Ewan didn’t look scared. Ewan downed hot wings and gulped brew like he hadn’t a care in the world. Dale’s glower had softened down to a glare. Maybe the drinks were helping.
What was up with this gloomy male deal? Every vampire Chloe had ever read about was brooding and secretive. Were there no happy vampires? Creatures of the night given to punking each other? Addicted to knock-knock jokes? Vampire stand-up comedians? She knew there was some kind of syndrome where people got depressed if they didn’t get enough sunlight. That might have a lot to do with it.
“Will you look at this,” Ewan said suddenly. “That’s Pepper Ames over there. And she’s alone. Slipped her brothers’ leash again. The sneaky little bitch.” He spoke the B-word with admiration. “I cannot let this pass by. You two’ll excuse me?” He bolted off his chair.
Chloe set down her burger with a big, fakey pout. “I thought I was the one who had your heart.”
“You do, m’love, you absolutely do. But she’s got my dick. I’ll be back whenever.” Ewan wove across the dance floor like a guided missile, dead set on target.
“He better act fast,” Dale said, with a chuckle in his voice that perked up Chloe’s ears. “I scented one of her cousins around. Her brothers’ll be here in short order, and they don’t like coy—” He snapped his jaw shut.
Chloe swallowed her latest too-big bite. “Scented? What do you mean, scented? What are you, Wolverine?”
“Cowboys,” Dale finished. “And I’m not a wolverine. Dukey Ames wears this really strong after shave. It’s tough to miss.”
Right. One random guy in a crowded bar puts on too much Old Spice, and Dale claims to notice it over the smells of booze, sweat, burgers and fries and close to a hundred bikers. She took a smaller, more thoughtful bite, watching him over the bun. Now who, outside of an X-Men movie, would have a sense of smell that sensitive? A vampire, perhaps?
Then again, there was that whole pesky she’d-seen-them-out-in-daylight thing. Chloe told herself she was being silly. Herself didn’t really buy it.
The hyperactive band took a break and a DJ took over. Two women in tight, spangly costumes slithered onto the stage and began an erotic dance routine. The males in the crowd howled their approval. Literally howled, in several cases.
“You okay?” Dale asked.
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.” Why, the big chivalrous galoot. He must have thought her startled reaction had been sparked by the dancers, not the howls. “I’ve been in a couple big cities. I’ve seen worse than this on the street.”
Not by much, though. The taller of the pair twined around her flame-haired partner like a snake squeezing in for the kill. Something about her set off Chloe’s journalistic radar. Those bare legs and arms looked just a tad too muscular, compared to the redhead’s slender limbs. Chloe automatically studied the taller dancer’s crotch. A costume that tight left no room for guesswork. There wasn’t even the hint of a bulge.
“Huh,” Chloe said. “I would have sworn … ”
“Nothing.” She turned her attention back to her burger. It really was excellent, and might be the last decent meal she indulged in for awhile.
“So,” Dale started, and stopped. He coughed. Took a sip of his drink. Rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re a writer.”
“Yup. Do I write smut? Also yup. In the business we call it ‘erotica.’ That doesn’t make me a pervert. I write for an existing and very hungry market, and because I enjoy it.” She gave him a honey-laced smile. “Are you okay?”
“’Course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” His voice had gone back to a growl. “It’s just sex. Nothing wrong with sex. You’re allowed to write what you want.”
“I’m so happy to have your permission. So, how’d you like my excerpt?”
“It was an eye-opener, that’s for sure. But vampires? Seriously? C’mon. How’s a dead body supposed to do all that? Granted, they got the stiff part down, but that’s it.”
“It’s a fantasy. A fairy tale for grown-ups.” Chloe leaned across the table, enjoying his discomfiture. “Isn’t that true of all romance?”
“Damn dead bodies,” Dale muttered. He rubbed his neck again. “It just ain’t natural.”
“That’s why we call it fiction.” Poor big, macho baby. He’d probably never read a romance in his life. She’d bet her favorite writing pen they were all Elmore Leonard groupies up here. “You’re supposed to read it to escape real life. The fantasy gives us hope.”
“For what? That a corpse can get it up?”
“That eternal love exists, and we can have it. We just have to find the right—”
She choked off. Her stare shot over Dale’s right shoulder and froze solid. His muscles tightened up, then loosened, like he was getting ready to spring. “What is it?” he hissed.
“It’s him. Behind you.” In the gloom at the back of the room, the man’s pallid skin glowed like a ghost. “The guy from the coffee shop. The big Russian.” Leonid Krasski. Panic had driven his real name out of her head.
“Who, Sergei?” Dale twisted around.
“Don’t look right at him! Geez!”
“Hey, relax. Ten to one he ain’t here for us. He’s sweet on Gypsy.” He nodded toward the stage.
Chloe peered back over her shoulder. While she’d had her back turned the taller dancer had left the stage. The redhead now moved in slow, sinuous steps with a big snake draped around her shoulders. Chloe shuddered and looked away. Better to look at the scary Russian guy. He creeped her out, but less.
In spite of the crowd crammed into the room, he had his little corner all to himself. His white hair poured over his shoulders like a fall of snow. He had a beer stein clasped in his enormous, colorless paw. Even sitting, he towered.
His gaze appeared to shift in her direction.
Chloe jerked her burger up to her face for cover. “He’s looking at us.”
“Doubt that,” Dale said calmly. “When Gypsy’s up on stage he don’t see nobody but her.”
Uncertain, Chloe steeled herself for a quick glance at the woman and the big icky snake, then another at man-mountain Sergei. The sight lines did seem to match up. “Does she know? I mean, he’s not stalking her, is he?”
“Seems to be a mutual attraction, far as anyone can tell. If Gypsy wasn’t interested, she’d let him know and make it stick. She’s a lot tougher than she looks.”
She looked plenty tough from where Chloe was sitting. Any woman who’d voluntarily put a snake that size around her neck clearly had guts to spare. “So he’s here a lot. Him being here has nothing to do with you or me.”
“That about sums it up.”
“You must be here a lot too, if you know that.”
“Ewan and me, we stop in. Not too many fun places in Talbot’s Peak. You may have noticed what a small town this is.”
“What kind of fun are we talking?”
“Well, uh … ” He took a hasty drink.
“Never mind.” Unable to look directly at Sergei and unwilling to look at the snake, Chloe looked around and found Ewan. He had his own erotic gyrations going on with a laughing brunette who probably wasn’t as old as her ID said she was. He had no trouble finding fun. Given the undead’s penchant for brooding, he’d make a terrible vampire.
Of course! That’s what had been bothering her about Ewan’s fictional counterpart. He was too vital, too full of life to be a vampire. He was Lars, Pietro’s faithful human friend. A descendant of Vikings, hot-blooded man from the frozen north, loud, boisterous and loyal unto death. While his joyful vibrancy appealed to Aramilla, it was Pietro’s dark, mysterious nature that drew her in. Pietro was a puzzle that demanded solving, and Aramilla had never learned the wisdom of letting a mystery lie.
She dove for her purse. Dale sat up. “Now what?”
“Nothing,” Chloe murmured, digging into her bag. “I have to get this down. It’ll only take a sec.” She whipped out a pen and a pocket-sized notebook and scribbled madly.
“What are you writing?” Dale demanded. His tone turned wary. “Not another sex scene, is it?”
“No. Why?” She stabbed him with her gaze. Her pen hesitated only a second before it continued to scrawl. “You want it to be?”
“Lemme see that.” He grabbed for the notebook.
Chloe grabbed for his wrist. “Try it and I’ll knock you on your butt again. I’m just making background notes. It’s not all about you. Geez.” Dale growl-muttered something. “Excuse me?”
“I said, the last one was.”
“What last—oh.” Her two missing pages. Pietro and Aramilla and what they’d been doing. Pietro’s physical description had been a bit on-the-nose. What excuse could she offer, other than this was a draft?
“Sorry,” she said. “You’re the first real cowboy I’ve ever seen up close. Cowboys are huge in romance. Bigger than vampires even. I never expected you’d read it. You want me to change the description? He already has different colored eyes. Nobody has to know it’s you. Nobody will know it’s you. Unless … ” She peered at him narrowly. “You’re not some millionaire or celebrity in hiding or something like that, are you? Somebody famous undercover?” Or something supernatural, masking his inhuman origins?
“Hardly. I ain’t dead, either. And I don’t do things like—like what them two was doing.”
“You don’t like sex?”
“No. Yes. No! Lupa bite it. Some things are just better left off the page, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Who’s Lupa?” Dale didn’t answer. Well, fine. When she got to the next sex scene she’d pull out all the stops, and use it for promo. That’d show him.
“What about Ewan?” Dale asked. “He in there? Him and me, we don’t do anything together, do we?”
“Not so far,” she said. She couldn’t stop her wicked grin. “But I’m only up to Chapter 5.”
He looked so stricken she put down her pen and laid her fingers over his wrist. “Okay. I’ll leave that part out. If you want, I’ll leave you out. Aramilla’s not me, either. I don’t do half the stuff I write about. Less than half. It’s just that acrobatics read better. The hotter the sex scenes, the better the sales. I really want to sell this. I almost have to. I’ve been out of a job for a couple weeks now. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. This is my shot.” She couldn’t tell if he was buying this quasi-apology or not. “Come on. Nobody has sex like they do in books. It’s all about the fantasy.”
“Real life does tend to suck a lot,” he said, so wearily she wondered what or who he might be reliving behind those treasure-trove eyes. “Is that what you women think about all the time? Sex with vampires?”
“It’s not always vampires. Sometimes it’s cowboys or firemen. I thought sex in general was all men thought about.”
“Some men.” He shot a significant stare in Ewan’s direction. Chloe giggled. No arguments there.
The heavy, driving beats of the previous songs were replaced by a slow, relaxed number. Ewan and his current amour continued to writhe, just at a more relaxed pace. Chloe looked on enviously. “You want to dance?” she asked Dale.
She expected a no, but he surprised her with an affirmative grunt. When she started to get up, he hopped off his chair to take her hands and guide her to her feet. Human, cowboy, vampire or whatever, he was definitely a gentleman at heart.
Though not much of a dancer. His feet moved all over, sometimes on hers, sometimes on the floor. Their stumbles didn’t endear them to the other couples, who made their displeasure known with bared teeth and bestial snarls. “Just stand there and sway,” Chloe suggested. “I’ll hang on.”
Dale sighed his relief. “Works for me.”
So it wasn’t much of a dance. It kept them in one place and safe from their nearest neighbors’ personal space. It also gave Chloe an added chance to take in the ambiance. Dale wasn’t the only uncomfortable male on the floor. Tension rose in little pockets all around them, from males clearly more accustomed to more violent physical action. A biker bar just wasn’t the place for a slow dance, but Chloe gave them credit for trying.
Tension of another sort bloomed in response to the dance. Chloe watched, fascinated, as it unfolded beyond Dale’s left shoulder. “Something interesting happening back there?” he murmured, amused.
“I’ll say.” Chloe shifted them around so he could take a look.
With her number finished the dancer, Gypsy, had thrown a kimono over her costume and joined Sergei at the back of the room. They danced together now, a slow and stately waltz that was nevertheless as erotically charged as Ewan and his girl’s suggestive moves. She pressed against his chest while his arm possessively curved around her tiny waist. She laughed up at him, her hair a rush of fire, his a stream of ice. Given his height and her petiteness, they couldn’t kiss unless he bent. He teased her with a little dip, but kept his lips out of her reach. She pouted up at him and kissed what she could get to, the white skin exposed by the open collar of his coat. Her fingers twined in his hair. He buried his fingers in hers.
“He loves her,” Chloe muttered in wonder. “The big iceberg is in love with her.”
Inspiration crashed into her writer’s brain with brutal, exhilarating speed. Leonid Krasski, deadly king vampire, had loved a mortal woman. A dancer, who looked and moved and loved like fire. He’d adored her with all his undead heart, but lost her. How? If he’d been human at the time, his humanity had burned away with the death of his wife. Until he found her again, or thought he had, reborn in Aramilla.
Chloe knew exactly now what Aramilla looked like, how she would walk and stand and especially dance, how she would smile and her eyes would sparkle in the presence of her only love. It was all playing out right before her eyes. Just like in a book, but way better.
She sighed and rested her head against Dale’s shoulder with a silly grin on her face. “I love it when the fantasy comes true.” The journalist in her twitched. “I should probably write this down.”
“So we’re done dancing?” Dale asked hopefully.
“Yeah, I guess—” Chloe broke off.
When the hell had their bodies got so close? When had she locked her arms around his neck? How had his mouth snuck up on hers without her noticing? Their faces were so close their breath mingled. He smelled like a pine forest, dark and spicy and full of wild animals, most of them unfriendly to humans.
His eyes were not Pietro’s, but they were still deep as the sea. Could a woman drown in gold? Chloe wondered, even as she sank.
He looked just as surprised as she felt, but he didn’t pull away. One little fraction of an inch and their lips would come together. All she need do was lean in to close the gap.
“Dale.” Ewan popped up beside them. He stared at her like he’d forgotten her name, then snapped his fingers. “Chloe. That flea-bus Dukey called in Pepper’s brothers. They’re on their way here. We gotta go.”
Dale didn’t exactly let go of her, but he did put air between them. Chloe sensed the moment was over. “What do you mean, we?”
“I mean they know we run together, so they’ll pound you just on principle.” He touched the brim of his hat to Chloe. “Sorry, sweetie. Gotta cut this date short.”
Chloe paid the tab and they made a hasty exit. Shelling out for the meal hurt her wallet, but the loss of Dale’s arms around her hit harder. I didn’t even have a drink, she thought. What the flaming fug?
Never mind. She buried the sense of abandonment under the need to get home and get to work on her next chapter, while the image of Krasski and his one true love remained fresh in her head. She’d come to Talbot’s Peak to write a book, after all, not fall for a cowboy. Even one who might be a vampire.
Dale saw her to her car, and held the door while she climbed in behind the wheel. He didn’t shut it until she’d buckled in. “You gonna be okay to drive?” he asked.
“No prob,” she said, and there wasn’t. Knowing she’d have to drive later—and realizing she was heading out to some bar in the boonies with two men she barely knew—Chloe had restricted her liquid intake to water and soft drinks. She didn’t know what Dale and Ewan had been gulping down all night, but she was pretty sure it hadn’t been soft. “What about you?”
“We’re covered,” Ewan assured her. She hadn’t even noticed he’d followed them. “Dante knows us. He has rooms. We’ll have to check those out next time we’re here. Did I give you my number yet?”
“I’ve got your number, all right,” Chloe said. Dale was a tougher mystery to crack. “Well. I … guess I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah.” Dale looked at the ground. Ewan stared around the parking lot. All of a sudden a pickup truck, crowded cab to bed with scowling, dark-haired men, roared up to the bar. Ewan abruptly disappeared.
“You sure you’re going to be all right?” Chloe asked.
“We’ll be fine. Dante won’t let things get out of hand. You take care of yourself. Watch out for … ” He flicked his tongue over his lower lip. “Vampires.”
“I’ve got garlic in the glove box,” she assured him. No, he wasn’t going to kiss her. So she kissed him, a quick grab to his shirt, a jerk, and a peck on the lips. “That’s for the dance,” she said. She put the car in gear and shot out of the lot before he could react.
Once on the road she felt free enough to ask herself, What the hell was that about? She didn’t know the guy. He couldn’t dance. He might be something paranormal or, even worse than that, married. He acted like he had something against writers, which would definitely be a problem. If he couldn’t see the allure of vampires, well, that was his own loss.
He’d tasted nice, though, even though he smelled scary. And she wasn’t about to argue with the way she’d felt in his arms. Safe, protected. She hadn’t even been afraid of Sergei while Pietro/Dale stood between them. She had seen her Aramilla, and understood now how Aramilla felt in the arms of the man she loved.
She realized she was grinning like a maniac, and wiped the grin off her face. Forget that, she thought. Forget about him for now. You’ve got a book to work on. And more. Chloe floored the pedal, unsettled at the thought that the dance between them might not be finished after all.