Wednesday, May 31, 2023

#Review - Blessed Odds by Steve McHugh #Fantasy

Series: Riftborn # 2
Format: Kindle, 270 pages
Release Date: February 21, 2023
Publisher: February 21, 2023
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Lucas Rurik confronts a cult determined to remake the world—no matter the cost—in this urban fantasy noir from the author of the Hellequin Chronicles.

Lucas Rurik is no stranger to navigating the tricky territory between humans and those touched by the rift. After all, as the last surviving member of the Raven Guild, protecting the peace is his job. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

As much as Lucas would like to be out hunting for Dr. Callie Mitchell—a deranged scientist with a bad habit of experimenting on the rift-fused—his friends at the Rift-Crime Unit require his expertise on a perilous case. It seems a mysterious kingpin known as the Croupier has been making some shady deals, and revenants, riftborn, and humans alike are winding up dead in the process. Now, with the help of chained revenant Nadia and FBI-agent-turned-revenant Emily West, it’s up to Lucas to track down the anonymous crime lord before anyone else is hurt.

But as Lucas gets closer to his target, he discovers this is no ordinary manhunt. The Croupier is leading a dangerous group of zealots who want to destroy both the rift and humanity—and they’ll stop at nothing to make their so-called Blessed plans a reality.

Steve McHugh's Blessed Odds is the second installment in the authors Riftborn series featuring Lucas Rurik. There were once (7) Guilds: Falcon, Owl, Eagle, Hawk, Vulture, Kik, and Ravens. Lucas used to be part of the Raven Guild; that is until someone murdered all of its members—except for him and stole the Raven medallions of his guild. In the previous installment, Lucas got revenge on one of those responsible, but another, Callie Mitchell, has all but disappeared. 

6 months later, Lucas is trying to track down the super serum vials Callie created that cause humans to mutate into monstrous beings. In this new adventure, Lucas, along with allies Nadia, a chained revanant who can see multiple time lines, Emily West, a former FBI agent who has been changed into a revanant who can be invisible, and Ji-Hyun try to track down a new villain nicknamed the Croupier. The Croupier is leading a dangerous group of zealots who want to destroy both the rift and humanity—and they’ll stop at nothing to make their so-called Blessed plans a reality.

Lucas tends to follow where ever there is trouble. It doesn't matter if the trouble is in New York, or Canada, or London, or even the Rift, Lucas has a moral compass that won't let him walk away when people are in trouble. And, in this case, the Croupier may be the most dangerous villain Lucas has faced in centuries, and that is saying a lot since Lucas has also fought in several wars over the past century. Other interesting characters are Ezekiel, aka Gunslinger who has been around since 1778.

Zeke hunted down notorious criminals, and was once a US Marshal before becoming extremely wealthy. Of course, once in Canada, Lucas finds betrayal and more danger in his hunt for Callie who seems to have disappeared and in her place, the Croupier has become a major obstacle and distraction. While Emily is coming to terms with the fact that she is no longer human, she still has a large roll to play since she does, in fact, know the people involved in both the FBI and the RCU (Rift Crime Unit).

Meanwhile in the Rift, a group of practitioners has decided that they want to take the power away from the Ancients which sends Lucas on a mission to track down some friends he hasn't seen in a while, and a woman known as the Queen of Crows who has made her home in a fortress like prison. The Queen is hanging on by a thread as there are those from all sorts of places who would love to take her down. Including the Croupier which makes for an interesting alliance, as well as a twisted cliffhanger ending which may change everything for Lucas.

McHugh hasn't yet addressed Lucas being a secretive Talon and what that actually means, but I do say that I am hopeful that the title of the next installment literally says A Talon's Wrath. Let's Go!

Friday, May 26, 2023

#Review - Simply Lies by David Baldacci #Thriller #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 438 pages
Release Date: April 18, 2023
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Suspense

Mickey Gibson, single mother and former detective, leads a hectic life similar to that of many moms: juggling the demands of her two small children with the tasks of her job working remotely for ProEye, a global investigation company that hunts down wealthy tax and credit cheats.  

When Mickey gets a call from a colleague named Arlene Robinson, she thinks nothing of Arlene’s unusual request for her to go inventory the vacant home of an arms dealer who cheated ProEye’s clients and fled. That is, until she arrives at the mansion to discover a dead body in a secret room—and that nothing is as it seems.   

Not only does the arms dealer not exist but the murder victim turns out to be Harry Langhorne, a man with mob ties who used to be in Witness Protection. What’s more, no one named Arlene Robinson works at ProEye.  

In the blink of an eye, Gibson has become a prime suspect in a murder investigation—and now her job is also on the line until she proves that she was set up. Before long, Gibson is locked in a battle of wits with a brilliant woman with no name, a hidden past, and unknown motives—whose end game is as mysterious as it is deadly.

David Baldacci's Simply Lies is a twisted psychological thriller that follows two entirely different, one a former detective (Mickey Gibson) who is now divorced with two small kids, and a con artist (Francine Langhorne) who pits said detective in a game of cat and mouse that push Mickey to the limits. Mickey Gibson is a former crime scene investigator turned street cop turned Detective who walked away from her job after her ex dumped her and her two young kids.

Mickey works for a company called ProEye, specializing in hunting down assets of a company that searches for wealthy credit and tax cheats. As a private investigator, Mickey the freedom of working from home while taking care of her children. When Mickey gets a call from a colleague named Arlene Robinson, she thinks nothing of Arlene’s unusual request for her to go inventory the vacant home of an arms dealer who cheated ProEye’s clients and fled. 

That is, until she arrives at the mansion to discover a dead body (Daniel Pottinger) in a secret room—and that nothing is as it seems. Turns out the person who called Gibson did not work for ProEye and thus begins an odyssey involving many people who also wanted to find Pottinger (which of course is not his real name).  Prime among those is Clarisse who only communicates with Gibson by telephone pushing her to use her police skills to uncover the “treasure” supposedly hidden by the dead man.

Mickey finds out that she's been set-up by a woman who's has her own scores to settle with both herself and the victim and that's where the author tries to fill the reader in to the mind set of Clarisse, and her own strange journey of revenge. Mickey has no clue as to what she may have done to the mysterious Clarisse. Before Mickey knows it, she is involved in who did it, where is the treasure, who is the good guy/gal? You will be kept guessing as to who is who - many of the characters histories are troubling so their motives (and real names) in the overall plot take some time to emerge. 

I think the only disappointment for me was the ending which, honestly, doesn't make any sense. The only character in the book that made any sense was Mickey's father who was a former New Jersey cop who warned Mickey that she was playing into a dangerous cat and mouse game with an unknown character with an axe to grind, and plenty of money to push many buttons.  

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

#Review - Painted Devils by Margaret Owen #YA #Fantasy

Series: Little Thieves # 2
Format: Hardcover, 512 pages
Release Date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Dark Fantasy

After accidentally starting a cult and invoking the wrath of the gods, a scam artist must fight to save everyone she has ever loved in this sequel to Margaret Owen’s YA fantasy Little Thieves.

When misfortune strikes, the “reformed” jewel thief Vanja manipulates a remote village for help and in turn, accidentally starts a cult around a Low God, the Scarlet Maiden. Soon after, her nemesis-turned-suitor Emeric and a supervising prefect arrive to investigate the claim of godhood, and she realizes how in over her head she must be. But the Scarlet Maiden does reveal herself . . . only to claim Emeric as her virgin sacrifice. Desperate to save the only man she’s ever cared for, Vanja decides to seek an alternative: bring the Scarlet Maiden a drop of blood from each of seven brothers for the midsummer feast.

While the thief and prefect-in-training still have feelings for one another, Emeric must determine whether Vanja has committed fraud as his final test for prefect-hood. And as they travel the Haarzlands, a harsh land far from the rules of the city, the past that Vanja barely remembers comes into full view and she fears a future that does not require her to keep running.

With vengeful apparitions, supernatural fraud, and ravenous hellhounds, readers will not be able to put down this Bavarian-themed YA fantasy, the thrilling sequel to Little Thieves. 

"A child's eye fears the painted devil, but the elder wields the brush" - Almanic proverb

Margaret Owen's Painted Devil is the second installment in the authors Little Thieves series. After taking down a corrupt margrave, breaking a curse, and finding romance with a junior prefect named Emeric Conrad, 17-year-old Vanja Schmidt, the god daughter of Death and Fortune, is looking for a new home. It has been 3 months since Vanja started wandering from city to city trying to find a purpose after years of being punished and tortured by a psychotic bitch. But soon the jewel thief-turned reluctant-do-gooder resorts to her old tricks, and in the process, invents a god named the Scarlet Maiden after she dumps her rubies in a river.

Now that lie is growing out of control, especially when Emeric arrives to investigate whether or not a fraud has been committed by Vanja. Emeric is soon claimed as a virgin sacrifice by the Scarlet Maiden. Vanja is given an alternate to keep Emeric from being her sacrifice. She must find seven brothers and collect a drop of blood from each of them before midsummer feast. While the thief and prefect-in-training still have feelings for one another, Emeric must determine whether Vanja has committed fraud as his final test for prefect-hood. 

And as they travel the Haarzlands, a harsh land far from the rules of the city, the past that Vanja barely remembers comes into full view and she fears a future that does not require her to keep running. While trying to stop the Scarlet Maiden from taking Emeric, Vanja must also deal with a Prefect Emeritus of the Godly Courts who stands in judgment or her actions. Vanja faces imminent arrest her for profane fraud if she can't prove that the Scarlet Maiden is truly a God.

Vanja also learns that she does, in fact, have a family, and that family has been searching for the Thirteenth daughter of a Thirteenth daughter for 14 years. Even though her mother clearly though she was the reason for all her problems, the back story tells a slightly different story, and one should really feel angry for what happened to Vanya from when she was 4 to escaping Hell. Vanja is a character who has plenty of the snark, moral ambiguity, and hidden wounds, especially when she finally meets all her brothers and sisters and extended family. Vanja would do anything to feel loved and to feel wanted, but her challenge is to deal with larger than life expectations which may drag her down one more time.

For me, the ending should have been the end of the series. Vanja has found the impossible; happiness, but the author has chosen to do something that I refuse to spoil. I even dropped my rating half a point because of said ending but I will try to read the sequel unless it takes another 2 years to be released.

Monday, May 22, 2023

#Review - The Quantum Solution by Eric Van Lustbader #Espionage #Political #Thrillers

Series: Evan Ryder (#4)
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Release Date: May 9, 2023
Publisher: Forge Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Espionage / Thrillers / Political

Evan Ryder is back, and in deadly peril, in THE QUANTUM SOLUTION, the fourth heart-stopping Evan Ryder adventure by master thriller writer and New York Times best-selling author Eric Van Lustbader.

Evan Ryder is an extraordinary intelligence field agent now working for the security arm of Parachute, a private company and the world’s leader in the application of quantum technology. In the past, Ryder has done lethal battle in the modern global wars of power politics, extremist ideology, corrosive disinformation, and outrageous greed. But now she finds herself in a battle arena whose dangers, while less obvious, are greater than anything the world has seen before – the present and future war of weaponized quantum technology.

When an elite Russian scientist and the American Secretary of Defense die, at the same time half a world apart, of inexplicable sudden catastrophic brain damage, the world’s intelligence services realize that the quantum war has truly begun. Ryder and her long-time partner, Ben Butler, will risk their lives to discover who the true combatants are, and who are the good guys and the bad.

The Quantum Solution is the fourth installment in author Eric Van Lustbader's Evan Ryder's series. Evan Ryder is now working for the security arm of Parachute, a private company and the world’s leader in the application of quantum technology, Marsden Tribe. In the past, Ryder has done lethal battle in the modern global wars of power politics, extremist ideology, corrosive disinformation, and outrageous greed. But now she finds herself in a battle arena whose dangers, while less obvious, are greater than anything the world has seen before – the present and future war of weaponized quantum technology.

When the American Secretary of Defense and a Lt. Colonel in the Russian GRU intelligence die at the same time half a world apart, of inexplicable sudden catastrophic brain damage, Ryder and Ben Butler, will risk their lives to discover who the true combatants are, and who are the good guys and the bad. The story takes place in places like Washington, DC, Langley, Virginia, Istanbul, Turkey, and of course Russia, where Bobbi/Kata is facing her first real threat thanks to Korokova and others like the "Sovereign" who wants world domination. 

But, since the author has chosen not to make this series strictly about Ryder, there are others that you will encounter over the course of this series. Russian Mayor Juliet Korokova is a mayor player in this story and is as dangerous as Kata Hemakova formerly known as Bobbi Ryder. If you haven't figured out who the Sovereign is after 4 books, let me spoil it for you. Putin. While people from the US and Russia are tying of a mysterious death nobody can explain, Evan, as usual is on the front lines getting her ass kicked time and time again. I am not a fan of an author who kicks the crap out of his alleged protagonist for fun. 

I am also not a fan of the ending of this story seeing as how there is a major moment when one of the key characters who has been friends with Evan for years, is about to spill a secret she has been holding for 5 years. A secret that both Evan and Bobbi/Kata should have been made aware of long before the pivotal final scenes in the book. I'm sorry to say that I may have run my course in reading this series. It's supposed to be the Evan Ryder series but gets discombobulated every single time Evan nearly died but miraculously survives. I understand that one is supposed to suspend reality, but come on! Evan is not a superhero who is immortal!

Friday, May 19, 2023

#Review - Ivy Touched and Bronze Blade by Shannon Mayer, Kelly St. Clare #Fantasy #Romance

Series: World of Honey and Ice # 2
Format: Kindle, 350 pages
Release Date: May 22, 2023
Publisher: Hijinks Ink Publishing
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Fantasy / Romance

Ripped from the man I’m bound to. Thrust into fresh danger. And this time I must go alone.

Except the task I’m burdened with
should belong to a more powerful fae—my mother. Listening to her brought me to this moment of heartache and loss. Perhaps the time has come for a new approach, no matter the consequences.

With my trusty gold bat, a tormented Aaden, and a potty-mouthed land kelpie for company, I have an oath to uphold before I can untangle the web of deceit and half-truths in this next quest. Because as it turns out, the child thief I defeated was merely a
henchman of the master of darkness. And this master?

He has another henchman.

I barely survived the encounter with the child thief, and with drained bodies dropping from the sky, can I make sense of the magic and ribbons before humans, fae, and the very realms we live in are claimed?

Failure has never been an option. Unfortunately, now it seems like the only one.

Ivy Touched and Bronze Blade is the second installment in co-authors Shannon Mayer and Kelly St. Clare's World of Ice and Honey series. This story takes place 3 years after the original series featuring Kallik and Faolan. Our protagonist, Silver, thought she stopped the darkness and rescued missing children from the Irish Fae Court. She returned the alleged future Queen of all Fae to her mother and put an end to the child thief, but it came with a steep cost. One of their group fell, and another, Aaden, seems to be possessed by an unknown entity. 

To make matters more twisted, Silver's "mother" Underhill has told her that she not only needs to keep her word to the woman that has been attached to her own body (Sigella), but she needs to do it alone. Along with the mouthy land kelpie, Kik, and Orlaith (Orry), Silver arrives in the Court of Queen Hyacinth (aka Cinth) trying to figure out a way to help Sigella, while also facing a darkness that is slowing taking over the land that is supposed to be protected by Underhill. Silver also comes face to face with the Oracle she hates so much only to learn that this Oracle is not who she expected.

This is where things get interesting. We not only learn more about who Silver really is, and BAM! get ready for a shock! but thanks to Kallik and Faolan, she finds that balance in her life, as well in the world, is really important if she has any strategy in fighting the newest darkness. She also finds changes in Underhill that she can’t believe and can’t quite grasp. After all, Underhill is supposed to keep the balance between light and dark, and not it appears that Underhill is in big trouble.

With each “visit” to these places where she is supposed to find key parts of a spell to free Sigella, she learns something new about her mother (aka Underhill), the Oracle, the darkness and herself. After freeing Sigella, another shocking event sends Silver into yet another fight against an even more devastating villain. Silver must put away her anguish and pick up the fight to keep the balance and defeat the darkness. In this fight, Silvers own actions may spell doom for the Fae Realm if she can't rally her inner strength and determination.

I am happy to learn who Silver really is, and what really happened to her 3 years ago after Kallik defeated a threat that could have destroyed the Fae realms and Human world. I honestly was shocked to learn that she and Kallik have had similar struggles to get where they are now. Silver has gone from the wild girl that was captured by Cormac, and has now risen to a place where she knows that her own path is something she has to figure out and not rely on the Oracle or anyone else. While this book does end on a cliffhanger, I would not let that stop you from reading this series. It is action packed, it has plenty of adventure, some really interesting characters, and yes, it is also emotional. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

#Review - The Poisoner's Ring by Kelley Armstrong #Historical #SyFy

Series: Rip Through Time Novels (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Release Date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Science Fiction / Time Travel / Historical

A modern-day homicide detective is working as an undertaker's assistant in Victorian Scotland when a serial poisoner attacks the men of Edinburgh and leaves their widows under suspicion.

Edinburgh, 1869: Modern-day homicide detective Mallory Atkinson is adjusting to her new life in Victorian Scotland. Her employers know she’s not housemaid Catriona Mitchell—even though Mallory is in Catriona’s body—and Mallory is now officially an undertaker’s assistant. Dr. Duncan Gray moonlights as a medical examiner, and their latest case hits close to home. Men are dropping dead from a powerful poison, and all signs point to the grieving widows… the latest of which is Gray’s oldest sister.

Poison is said to be a woman’s weapon, though Mallory has to wonder if it’s as simple as that. But she must tread carefully. Every move the household makes is being watched, and who knows where the investigation will lead.

New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong is known for her exquisite world building, and this latest series is no exception. The Poisoner's Ring brings the intricacies of Victorian Scotland alive as Mallory again searches for a 19th-century killer as well as a way home.

The Poisoner's Ring, by author Kelley Armstrong, is the second installment in the authors Rip Through Time Series. The story takes place in the year 1869, which is the Victorian Era. This book picks up a month after the events of the last novel. Mallory Atkinson is a homicide detective from Vancouver, Canada, who was visiting her grandmother in Scotland before being attacked and sent back in time to Edinburgh, Scotland. She found herself in the body of a 19-year old Scottish girl named Catriona Mitchell, who wasn't a very nice person. 

She is adjusting to her new life in Scotland as an undertaker's assistant to Dr. Duncan Gray, and his sister Isla Ballantyne, who has come to accept that she is Mallory, not Catriona. Dr. Duncan Gray moonlights as a medical examiner, and their latest case hits close to home. Men are dropping dead from a powerful poison, and all signs point to the grieving widows. In one case, the murdered man is Gray’s oldest sister Annisi. Poison is said to be a woman’s weapon, though Mallory has to wonder if it’s as simple as that.

Along with Detective Hugh McCreadie, Mallory, and Gray, investigate a possible poison ring has been created. A ring of women who murder their loved ones with a deadly poison not readily known in this era. The most interesting aspect of this series is watching Mallory trying to make her way through a world she was not born into, and not give away too much information that might change the future. Mallory is a character with plenty of depth. She’s hardworking, kind, relatable, and makes for a strong female protagonist that readers can cheer on. 

Her relationship with Duncan has gone from mistrust, to something closer to a solid friendship. Mallory knows that Duncan has a hard enough time not being white in a society that looks down on people who are different. Add to the fact that readers get a deeper understanding of the family Duncan and Isla were born into, and it's a wonder how anyone is capable of doing what they do. One of the questions I have in reading this series, is whether or not Mallory will find a way back home, and if she does, what kind of world will see find once she gets back. Or, will the author decide that Mallory should stay in the Victorian Era Scotland with Duncan and his family? 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

#Review - Killing Me by Michelle Gagnon #Thrillers #Suspense

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: May 16, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Suspense

She escaped a serial killer. Then things got weird.

Amber Jamison can’t believe she’s about to become the latest victim of a serial killer. She’s savvy and street smart, so when she gets pushed into, of all things, a white windowless van, she is more angry than afraid. Things get even weirder when she’s miraculously saved by a mysterious woman . . . who promptly disappears. Who was she? And why is she hunting serial killers?

You’d think escaping one psychopath would be enough, but Amber’s problems are just beginning. Her close call has law enforcement circling a past she’s tried to outrun. She’s forced to flee across the country, ending up at a seedy motel in Las Vegas with a noir-obsessed manager and a sex worker as her unlikely companions . . . and danger right behind. She’s landed in the cross hairs of the world’s most prolific killer, caught up in a deadly game that’s been going on for years. To survive, she is forced to dust off her old playbook and partner with someone she can’t trust. The odds are against her, but sometimes you just have to roll the dice.

Michelle Gagnon's Killing Me is a suspenseful thriller with a bit of humor added in to make sure the story doesn't get too bogged down with darkness. The story begins in Johnson City, Tennessee with Amber Jamison being kidnapped by a serial killer. Amber, which isn't her real name, has a rather colorful past that she is trying to hide from. She's a con-artist who made a bad mistake which led to her arriving in Tennessee hoping to change her future. So, for Amber to be taken in broad light by the so called Pikachu Killer is just the perfect ending to a rather messed up life of mistakes.
Then the curious happens. After being shaved of all her hair, and painted blue, a woman wearing a mask shows up out of nowhere and saves her from becoming just another victim. Apparently, the woman was tracking the killer and arrived just in the nick of time to save Amber. Because Amber isn't as innocent as she seems, she has long history running cons--first with her parents and then on her own, until it ends in tragedy, Amber decides to pack her things and run away when an FBI agent comes sniffing around her door. 
A short time later, Amber ends up in Las Vegas, drawn there by ads left on her windshield, where there has been 3 victims so far, and Amber hopes she didn't make the biggest mistake of her life. Upon arrival, Amber befriends a woman named Dot who is part of a group known as Fatal Femmes. They are citizen sleuths trying to solve a series of murders. When Amber receives a warning, along with an envelope with her name on it, it seems as though yet another serial killer has taken an interest in her. An interest that might collect the women who she quickly becomes friends with, including Grace Grimes whose father was a serial killer
Killing Me is propelled by the push-pull relationship between its two compelling female protagonists whose father was a serial killer. This story can be compared to Hustlers meets Killing Eve. Morally ambiguous women are more popular than ever, and readers will love the wary friendship at the center of the read. Strong characters, including our protagonist, Amber and vigilante, Grace, drive a distinctive and quirky plot. The chemistry slowly builds between these two women, making the book even better. 
*Note* The overall story is interesting, and twisted, but it is time to walk away from authors who push personal feelings and politics into their stories.

Chapter One: You Only Live Once

The worst part was that I felt stupid.

Well, that's not entirely true. The real worst part was that I was tied up in the back of a van with a hood over my head, and based on recent news reports, something truly horrific was about to happen.

But feeling stupid was definitely second worst.

I'd followed every campus safety alert and obsessively read every news article. Johnson City, Tennessee, wasn't the kind of place where anything of significance ever happened, and then-whammo! It was the hunting grounds for a serial killer. The population of sixty-six thousand seemed to have doubled overnight: satellite news vans lined Main Street (yes, there was an actual, honest-to-God Main Street); the Holiday Inn was fully booked, which never happened outside of college reunion weekends; and the Johnson City Tribune finally had articles that didn't involve the school board or city council. The killings were all anyone talked about in the Foodtown checkout line, over drinks at the Crow Bar, heck, even at the local strip club (suffice it to say, I've explored the local adult entertainment options).

Like me, the victims were all petite brunettes in their early twenties. Those similarities had elicited a tingle of excitement-the "it could've been me" awe of someone who missed a flight that crashed. Although I was equally certain that only a real idiot fell victim to a serial killer. That sort of thing happened to wide-eyed innocents who offered to help a guy with a fake cast load something into his van. I wouldn't fall for the old "Can you give me directions?" or "Help, I'm on crutches!" tricks. Not me, no way.

Well, ha ha. The joke was on me. Because it turns out I'd been exactly as dumb as those other girls.

Will I be his fifth victim, or the sixth? It was a strange thing to focus on, but while I lay on the floor of the van (of course it was a van), rocking from side to side as we drove along a bumpy road, that number seemed terribly important.

Calm down, I told myself. There was an FBI task force dedicated to the case; the Tribune claimed they'd basically taken over the Johnson City Police Department. An intrepid agent was probably already on my trail, they'd surely find a critical clue just in time to save me-

Except there were no clues; we hadn't scuffled, and I hadn't dropped anything. Stupid, I chastised myself again.

The bastard hadn't even done something clever to trick me. Just past dusk I had been walking back to my crappy apartment in the University Edge complex, so named because it was inconveniently located at the campus's farthest reach. I'd been mulling over the meager contents of my fridge, wondering if putting strawberry jelly on leftover rice qualified as dinner. Consequently, I'd barely registered the white van pulling to the curb fifty feet ahead. A guy in a delivery uniform got out and lumbered around to the side panel, completely ignoring me. I considered crossing the street, but when he grabbed a vase of flowers from inside and turned toward the house, I figured I was just being paranoid. So I continued toward him.

Then he literally butted me into the van. For a second, I thought it was an accident. I was opening my mouth to chew him out when the panel door slid shut and he was on me. I struggled, but within seconds he'd slapped a piece of duct tape across my mouth and jabbed me in the neck with a needle. When I came to, I was bound up like a sushi roll.

If it hadn't been so terrifying, it would've been downright comical. Imagine a surveillance video (not that there were any in this podunk town) of me getting catapulted into a van by a guy's ass. If serial killers put out blooper reels, that would be on it.

I was about to chuckle when my brain helpfully reminded me, You're going to die.

I started hyperventilating, which, trust me, is not fun when you're gagged, hooded, and barely able to breathe through your nose. I was still getting over a cold, too, so survival depended on my marginally less congested left nostril.

Calm the fuck down, panicking won't solve anything. I was trying not to think about the other victims, but good luck with that when a spare tire is digging into your back. Horrific images kept intruding. (I hadn't seen anything, obviously, but you know how that can make it even worse?) Their heads had been shaved. No problem there, I'd done that back in high school. The FBI had been a little vague about the next part, but apparently there had been other shaving, too (don't think about it), and then their entire bodies had been painted to look like Pokémon characters.

Seriously. Pokémon. Like, lizards and shit.

The FBI was also vague about how the women were killed, but it involved strangulation. Hopefully super quick and painless strangulation.

After they were killed, the Pikachu Killer (yup, that's what they called him) dumped the body somewhere weird-like a mall parking lot, or a high school football field-then sent local news networks a GPS link.

Get it? Like they were playing Pokémon GO. That's the kind of asshole who was about to kill me. Someone obsessed with an app no one even used anymore.

Not me, I thought, gritting my teeth. When this dickwad opened the door, I'd fight like hell. I'd escape and lead the FBI back to him. I'd be a hero, the woman who took down the Pikachu Killer. Every talk show would want me as a guest. I'd smile bravely as they questioned me about the ordeal. Maybe even write a bestselling memoir. Eventually, this would just be an awful memory that I'd get past with the help of a fancy therapist.

The van abruptly lurched, hurling me sideways. Then it slowed down. My heart pounded faster-this was it. We were arriving at the creepy cabin/warehouse/underground lair, or whatever he used for a kill room.

Sweat broke out on my forehead. I desperately tried to remember the women's self-defense class I took last year. Was I supposed to go for his eyes first, or his balls? I should've paid more attention, but there had been this really cute girl who distracted me-

The brakes squealed as we lurched to a stop. My heart was racing so fast it felt like I might pass out, which wouldn't be helpful at all.

I might not remember self-defense, but I'd always been a good planner, and escape routes were my specialty. So come up with a plan, genius.

My hands and feet were also bound with duct tape, based on the gross sticky feel. I dimly recalled seeing someone on TV split duct tape bindings, but I'd been super stoned at the time and hadn't thought I'd ever need that particular nugget of information, so I couldn't remember how it was done. I tried everything I could think of, but the tape didn't budge. If only he'd used handcuffs; I'm a pro at getting out of those.

So: using my hands and feet was basically out. Which was far from ideal.

I had my head, though, which I knew from unpleasant past experience was unusually hard and concussion-proof. If I slammed it into his torso, I could knock him down and then I'd-what, hop away? Well, yeah, if I had to.

Five. He's already killed five girls who looked like me. I experienced a bizarre surge of satisfaction when that number popped into my head; then the van's door popped open, ushering in a blast of chill air.

Okay, Amber, I told myself. It's now or never. The minute he grabs you, you've gotta-

A sharp jab in my ankle made me scream against the duct tape. Goddammit, he was drugging me again.


On the plus side, when I awoke I no longer felt stupid. Unfortunately, that emotion was replaced by utter, abject terror, so it wasn't exactly an improvement.

The hood was gone. I was in a dark room lit by a bare bulb. The floor was cement, and the walls and ceiling were covered in bumpy noise-canceling foam. The periphery of the room was cast in shadow, but the illuminated circle contained enough to inspire nightmares for the rest of my natural life. Which, judging by how things were going, was probably not going to be very long. It looked like the set of a low-budget horror movie, and would've been campy if it weren't so gruesome.

Directly beneath the lightbulb was a steel worktable with leather bindings for hands and feet; it was covered with streaks of blood (was a tidy serial killer too much to ask for?). Beside the table stood a rolling surgical tray cluttered with sharp pointy things, including a buzz saw with an extension cord.

I was duct-taped to a chair a few feet away from all of that, which, when I thought about it, made very little sense. Why not just start with me on the table? Clearly organization wasn't this guy's strong suit.

A wave of nausea swept over me. I fought it back-my mouth was still covered with duct tape, and if I threw up, I'd choke to death on my own vomit. Focus, Amber. How long had I been out? Hours? Days? The drugs had left my head feeling swollen and sluggish. By now, maybe someone had noted my absence and reported it to the FBI. (My renegade agent was developing features now; she was a raven-haired beauty in her early thirties who favored pantsuits, with a no-nonsense demeanor that concealed her true sensitive nature.) They had an entire unit dedicated to finding this guy, right? Once I was reported missing...

...except it was Easter break. My roommate Joanie was with her family, and campus was empty. No one was expecting me anywhere. My best hope was that the pizza guy would find it weird that I hadn't ordered anything in a few days; but he'd probably assume I'd gone away, too.

Man, I'd kill for a slice of pepperoni right now.

My stomach rumbled. The last thing I'd eaten had been a stale donut swiped from the faculty lounge that morning. Was that really going to be my final meal? It hadn't even been a good donut, it was mealy and had no frosting.

That sparked another flood of tears. Christ. Now you're crying over a bad donut.

A loud thump from above. I stared at the (also soundproofed) ceiling, listening hard. There was a heavy tread that gradually receded. He could return at any moment; I was running out of time. I scanned the room frantically, struggling with my bonds. In movies this was always the point where the heroine found a way to save herself with a bobby pin or something...

The plastic chair was child-sized, so small that my knees were bent to an uncomfortable angle. My arms were taped to its back legs, my ankles and calves to the front. Must've been a big sale on duct tape at Home Depot, because he certainly hadn't skimped. I couldn't shift my limbs at all.

Still, this wasn't exactly the sturdiest piece of furniture, so maybe I'd get lucky. I rocked back and forth on the chair, pushing off hard until it tilted past the balance point and dropped to the ground. My back bore the full brunt of the fall, knocking the wind out of me.

The chair didn't break. I hadn't landed on anything critical, but it hurt like hell and now I was stranded on my back like some sort of turtle.

A door creaked open on my left. I froze, every muscle reflexively clenching: even my heart seemed to stutter to a stop. Breathe, Amber, I reminded myself. And get ready.

There was a long pause. I strained my eyes, trying to make sense of the shifting shadows. It was completely silent but I could sense him there, watching me. I felt powerless and hopeless. I started to hyperventilate, my stuffed nostrils flaring to draw in air.

The killer stepped into the square of light.

Approaching the van earlier, I'd clocked him as a stooped, middle-aged guy with a bit of pudge around the middle. He was wearing white coveralls, a ball cap, and sunglasses. Seemingly harmless, totally forgettable.

Not anymore. He was easily six-four, maybe even taller. He had broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and powerful hairy legs.

I could tell all that because he was basically naked, aside from a tiny leather apron strapped around his waist. Two thoughts popped into my head. One: Why bother? I mean, an apron that size wouldn't keep him from getting dirty (or bloody). And two, where the hell did one even buy such a thing?

This fearsome spectacle was mitigated by the only other thing he was wearing.

It was a Pikachu mask.

Like, the kind a little kid would wear on Halloween.

It was too much for my mind to process: terrifying and absurd and hilarious, which added up to me lying on my back thinking, Huh.

The killer stood there for a few long beats, as though inviting me to revel in whatever the fuck he was supposed to be. Then he strode forward purposefully. I wriggled frantically, trying to shift the chair, but all I succeeded in doing was scraping the back of my arms. He acted as if I were an annoying fish who had flopped out of a net onto the deck of his boat. Bending over, he grabbed the back of the chair, then set it upright with a hard yank that threw my head forward.

He was behind me, so close I could feel his breath on my neck. All the hairs on my body stood up. I craned my head, trying to see what he was doing, but he was out of my sightline.

He trailed a finger from the top of my scalp all the way down to my upper back. It was a creepily intimate, possessive gesture that made me shudder. Tears flowed down my face, and I sobbed against the duct tape. Fear drove every coherent thought from my head. When I felt the prick of a needle in my arm, I embraced the darkness it offered with relief.


This time when I woke up, my scalp was unnaturally cold, and I was lying on my back. The pounding in my head was a million times worse; it felt like someone was thumping my skull with a mallet. The light seemed brighter, too, but that might've just been the migraine. I was shivering; it was either much colder in the room or...

My eyes finally adjusted, confirming my worst suspicions. I was naked. He'd strapped me to that disgusting table, and the overhead bulb glared directly in my eyes. My hands and feet were bound so tightly by the leather restraints I couldn't lift them at all.

I could raise my head, though, enough to see that my entire body was bright blue. Intricate swirls on my skin looked like scales; they were actually kind of pretty, and clearly took some time to paint. Christ, how long had I been unconscious?

And what came next?

I realized abruptly that the duct tape had been removed. I flexed my jaw a few times, reveling in my newfound ability to breathe like a normal human being. Then I opened my mouth to scream...but hesitated. That would just bring him running, and if the tape was gone, there probably wasn't anyone close enough to hear, right? Not to mention all the soundproofing. He clearly wasn’t sloppy when it mattered.

The surgical tray was by my right elbow. I craned my head higher—the room seemed empty. Maybe Leather Apron was having a snack before getting down to it.

Ridiculously, the thought made my stomach grumble. I would seriously murder for a sandwich right now.

Murder. Ha, that's funny. I yanked at the restraints again, but they just cut into my flesh. My hands were so numb that I probably wouldn’t be able to use them even if I was free.

This is it, I realized. Victim number six, all teed up and ready to go.

An odd sense of calm settled over me; there was a strange sort of peace in simply accepting my fate. Relief, even. I hadn’t had an easy life, and I’d made some terrible mistakes along the way. People had been hurt. Someone had even died. Maybe this was fate’s way of balancing the scales.

And he might’ve made a mistake this time, somewhere along the way. One of my neighbors could’ve spotted the abduction out their front window; my money was on the creep across the street who mowed his lawn in jean shorts. It was too late to save me, but other petite brunettes would be spared the same fate, and my sacrifice would mean something.

The door creaked open again. He was back.

I closed my eyes and said a short prayer, asking for the end to be as quick and painless as possible. Then I lifted my head to glare at Leather Apron.

As he stepped forward, my confusion grew. No apron, no Pikachu. This person was smaller, too, dressed entirely in black and wearing a ski mask. They held a long, thin stick.

"Who the hell are you?" I croaked.

Monday, May 15, 2023

#Review - Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman #Fantasy #Historical

Series: Scarlet Revolution # 1
Format: Paperback, 368 pages
Release Date: May 9, 2023
Publisher: Ace
Source: Publisher
Genre: Fantasy / Historical

Revolution is a bloodthirsty business . . . especially when vampires are involved.

It is 1793 and the French Revolution is in full swing. Vampires—usually rich and aristocratic—have slaked the guillotine’s thirst in large numbers. The mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a disguised British noble, and his League are heroically rescuing dozens of aristocrats from execution, both human and vampire. And soon they will have an ace up their sleeve: Eleanor Dalton.

Eleanor is working as a housemaid on the estate of a vampire Baroness. Her highest aspiration is to one day become a modiste. But when the Baroness hosts a mysterious noble and his wife, they tell Eleanor she is the spitting image of a French aristocrat, and they convince her to journey to France to aid them in a daring scheme. Soon, Eleanor finds herself in Paris, swept up in magic and intrigue—and chaos—beyond her wildest dreams. But there’s more to fear than ardent Revolutionaries. For Eleanor stumbles across a centuries-old war between vampires and their fiercest enemy. And they’re out for blood. . . . 

Scarlet is the first book in a wildly engaging new series from Genevieve Cogman, which reinvents the beloved tale of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Genevieve Cogman's Scarlet is the first installment in a new series based on the Scarlet Pimpernel written by Baroness Orczy. It shares the story of an Englishman who rescued men, women and children during the Reign of Terror. The story itself is filled with historical settings, supernatural creatures (vampires), romantic entanglements, and heart-pounding secrets. The year is 1793, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror is in full swing. 

Vampires have staked and sent to the guillotine’s thirst in large numbers thanks to the Committee of Public Safety and a man called Chauvelin. Chauvelin was a despicable man who relied on fear and violence to accomplish his goals, much like the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror does. The mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a disguised British noble named Sir Percy aka Chief, and his League are heroically rescuing dozens of aristocrats from execution, both human and vampire. 

Eleanor Dalton is working as a housemaid on the estate of a vampire Baroness, Lady Sophie. Eleanor has aspirations of working for a dressmaker in London. But when the Baroness hosts a mysterious noble and his wife, Lord & Lady Blakeney, they tell Eleanor she is the spitting image of a French aristocrat. Although younger, Eleanor bears a very strong resemblance to Queen Marie Antoinette, who has been arrested and faces the guillotine. Eleanor is persuaded to help a covert rescue attempt.

She must leave the safety of England and travel to France along with 4 others members of the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Eleanor and the Scarlet are successful, she may make enough money to make that dream a reality. On this mission, she faces snobbery, self doubt and some vampires who aren’t as kind as her mistress – as well as learning why the revolution has started. Soon, Eleanor finds herself in Paris, swept up in magic and intrigue—and chaos—beyond her wildest dreams. 

But there’s more to fear than ardent Revolutionaries. For Eleanor stumbles across a centuries-old war between vampires and their fiercest enemy. And they’re out for blood. When Eleanor is separated from her party after they are ambushed on the way to Paris, something happens and I am curious to see how this thread progresses. I fail to see the point of revealing a major spoiler as it makes for more fun to see how the authors plays this new part of Eleanor in future novels.

There was a small romantic aspect between Eleanor & one of the other characters, but it wasn't a major plot point & didn't really detract from the story. Eleanor was a really compelling character, well developed and likeable protagonist. She is a little naive at first but, her emotional development as she grows in confidence and learns to trust her own instincts was really phenomenally done.

Cogman is the author of one of my favorite series (The Invisible Library) so of course I had to see if she could keep up her magical world building, and characters like Irene who I came to adore. If you truly pay attention, you will notice that the author has included little cameos that you will likely find in the original story.   


"You mean they don't even wear no trousers?" Sarah asked, shocked.

"They don't wear any breeches," Melanie corrected her. "All the aristos-that's what they call the nobs over there when they're being rude about it-called the ordinary people sans-culottes because of how they weren't wearing nice knee-breeches. But frilly clothes don't do them much good now they're all getting their heads cut off. Ain't-isn't that so, Nellie?"

Eleanor didn't look up from drying the china. Slacking at one's job in the Baroness of Basing's household was a bad idea, even among her fellow servants in the kitchen downstairs. She'd spent enough time working her way up to an indoors maid position, and the possibility of serving as an actual lady's maid was almost within her grasp. She wasn't going to ruin her chances now.

"That's pretty much it," she agreed, picking up another fancy plate, one of the set with pink designs and gilt edging. "Though the papers say the citizens are all in rags mostly anyhow, except for the ones in their Assembly."

"It tears my heart," Mrs. Dommings said, kneading the dough with powerful hands, "to hear you talking about what they're all wearing and not about what those evil Frenchies are doing. A nation what kills their own king is cursed by God and man alike." She punched the dough again. "If it weren't for that heroic Scarlet Pimpernel saving the poor persecuted nobility from the guillotine, hundreds more of them'd be dead. Dead for good, if you count the vampire ones. I don't know how he does it."

Eleanor and Melanie rolled their eyes at each other, suppressing sighs. Mrs. Dommings was the world's worst bore when she got onto the subject of the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel and how he rescued innocent aristocrats from having their heads cut off. What was the point of discussing the man when the only thing anyone knew about him was that he was mysterious? Even rescued French aristocrats knew nothing about him-or claimed to know nothing.

Sarah began to peel carrots for the servants' supper. She and Melanie were part of the mansion's day service; the night service would come on duty later. Lady Sophie rarely ate . . . regular meals, but servants needed sustenance, like any other human. Still, when you had a vampire for your mistress, you worked by night and you didn't complain. "I wish we didn't have to learn French. It doesn't make no . . ." She paused and corrected her grammar at a glare from Mrs. Dommings. "That is, it doesn't make any sense."

"The Baroness likes having the household able to speak French for when she has French visitors," Eleanor said, conscious of her position as the senior maid of the three. "Besides, with all the aristocrats leaving France, maybe we'll end up working for one of them." More importantly, if one couldn't speak French, then one had no hope of rising in the household to work abovestairs. Eleanor had no intention of spending her entire life in the kitchen.

"That's a proper attitude, Nellie," Mrs. Dommings said. "Not that her ladyship ever likes to have staff leave, but who knows? We all said that what happened in France couldn't happen, and it did. Just goes to show. Their king dead, their poor queen and prince and all their friends prisoners. Shocking."

Eleanor nodded and kept a tight grip on her thoughts. I just need to keep working. If I can learn French like her ladyship wants, if I can be good enough at embroidery, good enough at serving, then perhaps someday I can get out of this kitchen . . .

Her ladyship the Baroness of Basing might be a good mistress-but it was true that she didn't like staff to leave. And Eleanor wanted more than life in Basing. A lady's maid might travel to London with her ladyship, and might even be able to find a situation there with one of her ladyship's friends or-in Eleanor's wildest dreams-employment as a modiste and embroiderer. Nobody could accuse her ladyship of not having friends, both living and vampire. There were two of them visiting at this very moment, and the gentleman was definitely wearing breeches. Embroidered satin ones too.

"How're you getting along with young William, Nellie?" Mrs. Dommings asked. She tried to make it sound casual, but her beady eyes were sharp and alert. "Haven't heard much from you about him lately."

"Haven't been seeing him much lately, miss," Eleanor said.

"Well, you know what her ladyship says," Mrs. Dommings pressed. "It's better to marry than to burn."

"That may be so, but it wasn't me who was burning," Eleanor said. She put down the last of the dishes, aware of Melanie and Sarah trading glances and suppressing sniggers. She wished she could direct the conversation back to the mysterious Pimpernel. "Honest, miss, he was the one as did all the running, and I've been doing nothing but telling him no."

"That's as may be, but no man ever went running after a woman without her leading him on," Mrs. Dommings said firmly. "If it wasn't for your mother being so far away in her ladyship's country estate, I'm sure that his mother would already have been talking to her."

A chill ran down Eleanor's spine. She'd thought that she'd been clear with William the last time they spoke. All it had been was a couple of strolls together. He wasn't a bad man-but if their parents, or worse, her ladyship, wanted them married, then she wouldn't have a choice. She was already twenty-two. A lot of the maids were married by that age. The walls of the old house seemed to close around her like the sides of a tomb.

Of course she could say no; marriage in church needed both man and wife to say yes to the vicar, after all. But her life wouldn't be worth living, with her mother against her, all the older servants saying she'd led him on, her ladyship frowning on her behavior-small chance of Eleanor ever getting a higher position or going to London if that happened. It was easy for people to say you just had to stand up for yourself, but harder actually to do it when you had to live with the consequences. Maybe rich ladies could write pamphlets about the rights of women-but Eleanor would lay money they didn't have to spend their time cleaning the grates, drying the dishes or peeling the carrots . . .

Her black mood was broken by the creak of the kitchen door swinging open. She hastily grabbed for the final plate to give it an unnecessary polish, not wanting to look idle, before glancing over to see who it was.

Mr. Barker, the butler, surveyed the kitchen like a general looking over his regiment of soldiers, thumbs lodged in his waistcoat pockets. His nose was red; he must have been at the gin again and still thinking nobody noticed. "Her ladyship has called for wine, ratafia and biscuits for her guests," he announced, "and the usual for herself."

"It's your turn, Sarah," Melanie said, her tone somewhere between glee and malice. "Go fetch the lancet and cup. I showed you where they were."

White around the lips, Sarah scuttled over to the cupboard which held her ladyship's private cups. Eleanor didn't really want to watch, but there was a perverse fascination to the whole process. Charitably she fetched a clean linen rag as Sarah quickly cleaned the long, thin knife with water from the boiling kettle on the hob. The new maid might still be coming to terms with French and proper grammar, but she'd grasped this part of her job fast enough. After all, her ladyship was a vampire-and vampires needed more than biscuits to sustain themselves.

"Get a move on," Mr. Barker scolded. "Do you think she's going to wait all day? And you, Nellie, mind that you don't get any of the blood on your clothing. You'll be taking it up to her."

"Me, sir?" Eleanor was delighted-this was a chance to prove she could manage the work-but also surprised. Waiting on her ladyship with guests present was usually reserved for the upper housemaids and servants. Despite her best efforts, she'd never yet been granted the opportunity.

"Her ladyship asked for you specially," Mr. Barker said. He patted her on the shoulder in an avuncular way. "Now don't get panicky, girl. Just remember your lessons and your manners and you'll do perfectly well. The drinks are on a tray outside in the corridor-I've set the glasses ready. All you need to do is put the tray down on the table, make your curtsey and leave."

"Yes, sir," Eleanor said, already imagining all the things that could go wrong.

Sarah gasped as the lancet went into her vein. She gritted her teeth as the blood trickled out into one of the little glass cups that the Baroness liked to use.

"That's it, dearie," Mrs. Dommings said gently. She always turned motherly when she was supervising the girls letting blood-probably because she never got asked for it anymore, Melanie once said spitefully. Her ladyship preferred the younger girls. "That's right. Now put the knife down and make sure you bandage yourself properly."

Mr. Barker turned Eleanor around to inspect her. Eleanor was frantically grateful she was wearing her better gown today-a nice gray-blue muslin with a clean white collar. Her white apron was still spotless, despite the summer heat and the kitchen work, and her hair-pale blonde which refused to turn golden, however many times she washed it with chamomile-was neat and tidy. "Yes," he said. "You'll do. Have you got the biscuits ready, Melanie?"

"All ready, sir." Melanie's tone was deferential, but the glance she shot at Eleanor was pure jealousy. "Here they are."

Eleanor collected the plate of biscuits, the side plates, and the cup of blood. "Is there anything else, sir?"

"That's all of it," Mr. Barker said. "Now get a move on-it's been five minutes since her ladyship rang."

Eleanor hurried up the stairs, halting in the servant's corridor to arrange the refreshments on the tray. It also gave her an opportunity to overhear the remaining conversation in the kitchen.

"I don't see why she got asked," Mrs. Dommings snapped. "It's not like Nellie has talent for anything other than sewing. Why not Jill or Susan?"

"Her ladyship asked for her specially," Mr. Barker said in a tone which shut down the conversation. "And I'm not going to argue with her ladyship. Are you?"

Her ladyship was in the front lounge with her guests; that was where she always received visitors in the afternoon. Eleanor paused outside the room to put down her tray and check that her hands were clean. It was a pity that there weren’t any mirrors around, as there would be in houses owned by people who were-well, alive-but one got used to it.

Eleanor took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Her mind was unhelpfully supplying images of all the things she might do wrong. She might trip over the carpet the moment she entered the room. She might spill the ratafia and biscuits all over the guests-or worse, the blood all over her ladyship. She might say something she shouldn't. She might not say something she should. She might slip on a rug, slide all the way across the floor, crash into the windows, tear down the curtains and break the glass. And any of those furnishings were worth more than a year of her salary.

A bray of inane male laughter burst from the room, audible in the corridor and probably in the next few rooms as well. It gave Eleanor a sort of courage; she might be just a maid in this household, but at least she wasn't stupid. Pulling herself together, she walked in.

Light fell across half the room from those windows which had their curtains open, so that the guests sat in a burst of sunlight. However, her ladyship was shielded from the brightest rays with heavy velvet drapes. Vampires might be able to walk in the sunlight, but they didn't like it. As her ladyship caught sight of Eleanor, she gestured for the maid to come forward with the tray of refreshments. Her ladyship's hair was heavily powdered-no changes in fashion for her-and her skin was just as spotlessly pale, like cream. She wore light gray and lavender silks, her wide skirt spreading out in a sea of complex embroidery, and her face was so perfectly serene that one would never imagine she couldn't use a mirror to paint it in the morning.

The two guests, by contrast, wore the height of current fashion, and both were living, breathing humans. The man was tall-no, positively gigantic, Eleanor decided, at least six foot-with gleaming blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, but a stupefied look of vagueness which spoiled the otherwise polished effect. His cream silk coat and breeches were as expensively cut as her ladyship's own clothes, and embroidered with an elegance which made Eleanor wish she could examine it more closely. He lounged in his chair, apparently never having been told that it was polite to sit up straight.

The woman with him was very modern, with her hair barely powdered. Its natural red-gold glowed in the sunlight in a way that made Eleanor burn with envy. She was wearing the latest style of dress: a high-waisted flowing muslin frock and silk sash in the same shade of cream as the man, with not a single pannier to bulk out her skirt. She laughed in response to something, and the man-her husband?-smiled at her.

Eleanor desperately ran through the rules of etiquette in her head. Guests first, then her ladyship. She bobbed a curtsey to the man and offered the tray.

He looked up at her with a lazy smile as his hand closed round one of the glasses-and then his face froze, the smile slipping off it like butter from a hot plate. His eyes narrowed with sudden, sharp intelligence. But seconds later that focus was gone, and he was blinking vaguely again, ferrying glasses and decanters from the tray to the side table. "Deuce take it, my dear Sophie," he said to her ladyship, "you might have warned us!"

His female companion followed his gaze, and her eyes widened. "Pardieu!" she exclaimed, in a distinctly French accent. "She's the spitting image. Who would believe it?"