Friday, June 28, 2024

#Review - Dead Weight by Annabel Chase #Fantasy #Paranormal

Series: Crossroads Queen # 5
Format: Kindle, 284 pages
Release Date: April 11, 2024
Publisher: Red Palm Press LLC
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Lorelei Clay is determined to put down roots in the small town of Fairhaven no matter what the universe throws at her. After all, she’s invested her entire savings in the rundown monstrosity known as the Castle—and she’s on the verge of investing her heart in a certain prince of hell, if he can overcome his literal internal demon.

Lorelei and Kane aren’t the only ones haunted by their histories. When unfamiliar werewolves cause trouble in town, Arrowhead alpha Weston Davies realizes his tragic past is about to catch up with him and threaten the life he's managed to build.

Meanwhile, an issue with a disgruntled fae could result in an interrealm incident if it isn’t handled with velvet gloves, which isn’t exactly Lorelei’s style.

As their problems continue to mount, it becomes clear that unless they face their respective pasts—they'll have no future.


Dead Weight is the Fifth installment in author Annabel Chase's Crossroads Queen series. 35-year-old Lorelei Clay is determined to put down roots in the small town of Fairhaven no matter what the universe throws at her. After all, she’s invested her entire savings in the rundown monstrosity known as the Castle—and she’s on the verge of investing her heart in a certain prince of hell, if he can overcome his literal internal demon. Lorelei and Kane aren’t the only ones haunted by their histories. 

When unfamiliar werewolves cause trouble in town by attacking one of Arrowhead alpha Weston Davies' pack members, he realizes his tragic past is about to catch up with him and threaten the life he's managed to build. A past that he had thought he left behind after he fled from Minnesota to Fairhaven. Even though Davies and his pack act like they don't need anyone to help them, especially a certain woman who can't control the dead, and give people nightmares, Lorelei has pretty much accepted that she is the so called Crossroads Queen.

Meanwhile, Lorelei meets one of the fair folk who came through the Crossroads. Sian, a member of the Seelie Court, claims that he is looking for his sister, Rhiannon, who may have been switched at birth with a human child 19 years ago. Lorelei's only lead seems to be a woman named Sarah. Thankfully, Lorelei has two ghosts living with her who have been really helpful lately. Ray Bauer seems to have caught the bug for using the computer, while Nana Pratt has learned how to actually cook, and other things thanks to Lorelei.

And, if that wasn't enough to keep Lorelei busy, Vincenzo Magnarella, the Mafia Vampire, is still holding a grudge against Lorelei after she destroyed his lab to ensure other humans weren't used as place settings for Gods and Goddesses. Thanks to Vincenzo, Lorelei also gets an unusual appointment with three woman you can call Fates in NYC. Lorelei gets a rude awakening when the women tell her that her fate was chosen for her and that she will one day play and important role in a yet undetermined event. 

One of the things that hangs over this story is the relationship between Kane and Lorelei. He knows her secret, and now so doesn't Weston. It appears that she is also ready to tell Gunther and his cousin Camryn. The pair are La Fortuna Mage society assassins who use tarot cards and have become friendly with Lorelei since she saved Camryn. But I digress. It appears they are dancing around each other taking things slow. If anyone is to blame, it is Lorelei since Kane is willing to move as fast as she allows. The ending is one of the first that I remember where the author leaves the book ending open to continue to the next installment in the series. I also think that the author needs to address the stuff the Fates discussed with her, and what that will mean to the people of Fairhaven.





Thursday, June 27, 2024

#Review - Skullduggery by Helen Harper #Fantasy #Paranormal

Series: Thrill of the Hunt # 3
Format: Kindle, 296 pages
Release Date: June 17, 2024
Publisher: Helen Harper
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Okay. I’ll admit I’ve got problems. But surrender is word wholly absent from my vocabulary.

My grasp on magic is shaky at best and my dependence on spider’s silk is a battle I’m still fighting. But while my heritage and my health might be problematic, I’m certainly not going to roll over and give up.

Not me. Not ever.

With Hugo Pemberville and his skilled band of Prime treasure hunters by my side, I'm drawn into a quest for a mythical golden skull. This artefact might just be the breakthrough needed to shed light on the enduring mystery of Lady Rose's disappearance - but the search for it will force me down a twisty path filled with unexpected revelations.

The echoes of the past have never felt quite so close to home.


Skullduggery by Helen Harper is the third installment in the authors Thrill of the Hunt series. Key Characters: Daisy Carter, and Hugo Pemberville. Daisy Carter is a low-elf living in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is addicted to spider silk because it helps control her magic. She has two brownies (Hester & Otis) who she rescued from a curse. She has recently come under the guidance of Hugo Pemberville who is a treasure hunter. 

Hugo is trying hard to teach Daisy the ropes, including how to use her new sword called Glory, while also hoping that she can finally control the usage of a drug that she shouldn't be taking. Daisy's other issue is that she recently met a dangerous fiend, think Demon, named Athair who seems intent on finding out who her mother was. But this story focuses on a mystery 30 years in the making. The mystery of what really happened to Lady Rose Assigney. 

Thanks to some encouragement from sorcerer Gordon Mackenzie, Daisy, Hugo, Otis, Hugo, and some of Hugo's prime treasure hunters search for a missing golden skull. What they don't count on is Daisy being thrown back in time 30 years where she meets Hugo's parents, and the Lady Rose. She also discovers that powerful fiends are after Rose because she is fertile. She's one of the few humans who is capable of carrying the spawn of a fiend, and each of the demons want the baby. 

One of those demons is Athair who has made some interesting claims about Daisy. Daisy, with a little help from Hugo, and Hugo's parents, must do whatever they can to save Rose or she will die. The one thing that is certain. Daisy's life will never be the same again, and two, Daisy's relationship with Hugo is now moving into an entirely different direction thanks to Hugo's new found patience with Daisy, and finally understanding the truth his parents have been carrying around with them for 30 years. Daisy also learns a little secret about her magic, and all I have to say is it's about time! 

The author states that there will be one more book in this series which she is calling the finale. It's due to release in September of this year. 





Wednesday, June 26, 2024

#Review - Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes #SYFY #Horror

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
Release Date: April 9, 2024
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Source: Publisher
Genre: Science Fiction / Horror

A crew must try to survive on an ancient, abandoned planet in the latest space horror novel from S.A. Barnes, acclaimed author of Dead Silence.

An abandoned plant. A hidden past. A deadly danger.

Psychologist Dr. Ophelia Bray has dedicated her life to the study and prevention of Eckhart-Reiser syndrome (ERS)—the most famous case of which resulted in the brutal murders of twenty-nine people. It's personal to her, and when she's assigned to a small exploration crew who recently suffered the tragic death of a colleague, she wants to help. But as they begin to establish residency on an abandoned planet, it becomes clear that the crew is hiding something.

Ophelia's crewmates are far more interested in investigating the eerie, ancient planet and unraveling the mystery behind the previous colonizers' hasty departure than opening up to her.

That is, until their pilot is discovered gruesomely murdered. Is this Ophelia’s worst nightmare starting—a wave of violence and mental deterioration from ERS? Or is it something even more sinister?

Terrified that history will repeat itself, Ophelia and the crew must work together to figure out what’s happening. But trust is hard to come by…and the crew isn’t the only one keeping secrets.


S.A. Barnes Ghost Station is best explained as a space exploration mystery with aliens in a closed setting. Ghost Station starts with Dr. Ophelia Bray (story narrator) getting ready for the sleep cycle of a three-month travel in the Resilience ship making their way to Lyria 3936-C, the planet that her new team is going to reclaim for their company Montrose. After the death of one of her patients, Montrose and she decide that she should be out of the spotlight for a while, suggesting she accompany the reclaiming team. 

The problem is that one of the crew members of the Resilience died in the last job, now the Resilience crew is wary of Ophelia and her new ideas to prevent ERS as it shows up. The crew of the Resilience consists of Ethan Severin the mission commander, Birch Osgoode the pilot, Kate Wakefield the engineer, Suresh Patel the inventory Specialist, and Liana Chong the scientific coordinator. Ava Olberman used to be the system manager, but she died in the last expedition which readers will later learn in the story why.

The awakening of Ophelia’s sleep cycle is not the best, she is alone and is pranked by Suresh and Liana. While she is there to help them deal with their recent loss and potential mental health issues, Ophelia (
a psychologist burdened with a complicated past with ERS, a syndrome linked to space travel that manifests as hallucinations and violent outbursts in the afflicted) immediately understands that the crew doesn’t want her there and feels that she is just on this mission to report back to Montrose and all of them will lose their job. 

Lyria 393-C is a planet that is currently going through an ice age and the weather is constant storms and blizzards. It is a planet that was once owned by a group known as Pinnacle. As the crew of the Resilience starts their mission in Lyria-393 a strange phenomenon starts to occur on the ice planet, and not all of them might end up surviving this mission. One after the other, crew members seems as though they have been possessed by an alien species that was thought to have been extinct. 

Meanwhile, Ophelia's own past, and her own family misdeeds is brought to the forefront when her real identity that she long buried comes up. This story is a blend of mystery, murder, and psychological thriller. Straight away the reader starts to notice that something is not right with the station that the crew is using in Lyria 393, it seems that the previous team that was there left in a hurry and many of their personal belonging were left behind, Ophelia even finds a prosthetic tooth that somebody left. Something is playing games with their minds and wants them to stay forever. 

The reader will start getting an idea of what’s happening and who is behind it, but even at the end, there are a lot of twists and turns. Ghost Station blurs the lines between horror and science fiction. The novel immerses readers in an atmosphere of eerie suspense, evoking the unsettling sensation of being trapped in a situation where you know something is wrong, but the underlying threat remains elusive. 



1

Nova Cold Sleep Solutions–Personnel Division

New Chicago

Earth, 2199


The protesters outside are getting louder. Their chants are still faint, but somehow clearer than before. Or maybe that’s just Ophelia’s guilty conscience.

Their favorite seems to be “Montrose blows!” which does offer a certain pithiness, especially with the rhyming element. But there are plenty shouting “Fuck the Brays!” A perennial classic, though not usually directed at her personally.

But she certainly deserves it this time.

Ophelia flinches.

“Hold still, please,” the young tech says politely. He readjusts his gloved hold on her wrist and then slides the needle into the still healing port on the back of her hand.

“Sorry.” She tries to smile at him, pulling the crisp edges of the disposable gown tighter against herself with her free hand. She’s naked beneath the gown on the mobile exam bed, and the cold air blowing down on her exposed neck is about to set her teeth chattering.

It’s fine, though. She’s about to be much, much colder.

“All right,” the tech says a moment later, releasing her hand and peeling off his gloves with a snap. “Let’s give that a few minutes to kick in. I’ll be right back.”

The digital name badge on his lab coat flashes “RAYON. CALL ME RAY!” with a smiley face. But Ray doesn’t meet her gaze as he pushes back on his rolling stool and then stands to exit the tiny prep room.

Shame floods through her, and she squeezes her eyes shut with a selfish prayer.

Please, please let this work. I need this to work.

In the silence of the prep room, broken only by those chants and the clatter of metal wheels somewhere down the hall, her QuickQ interface gives a friendly bloop sound.

Relieved at the prospect of a distraction, possibly in the form of her younger sister calling, Ophelia opens her eyes.

But it’s her uncle’s face that appears on the blue-framed interface in her right eye, as if summoned by the scent of her desperation.

Fuck. Ophelia’s heart sinks. Good old Uncle Dar, coming in for the kill.

Her privacy settings allow her to see Darwin but not the reverse, a small blessing. His artfully silver-streaked hair rises above his preternaturally smooth forehead in a perfect peak. He is the image of the dashing, handsome CEO of a wealthy, multigenerational company, one who lands his air-veh to play an “impromptu” game of pickup with a group of Miami refugees from the encampment in Grant Park.

Until he opens his mouth.

“I know you can hear me, you little bitch,” he says through his affable smile. “I’ve tried to be reasonable.”

No, he tried to pull strings with her employer, which, surprisingly, hadn’t worked. Probably only because her family’s company and her employer are fierce competitors with a lot of hard feelings, not inclined to grant each other favors. Blackmail, espionage, rumors about hard-core kink preferences among senior executives. And that was just what she knew about.

“You need to think about the family for once. Come home to Connecticut and stay quiet. Let everything die down again. That Carruthers woman is digging again, and you’re only making it worse.” Darwin makes a scoffing noise. “What kind of a name is Jazcinda anyway?”

The name of a very respected journo-streamer, as it happens. Her channel tends toward the tabloid, but her own reports are solid. Very respectable. If you aren’t worried about her turning your entire existence upside down and inside out.

The sensor monitoring Ophelia’s heart rate gives a distressed bleat.

Darwin sucks air through his teeth, shaking his head in a tight jerk. “I knew you were trouble the first time I heard about you. We should have just left you there.”

“Is everything all right, Dr. Bray?” Ray appears at the door again, glancing at her and then at the vitals monitor on the wall doubtfully. He is so young, maybe only a half a dozen years older than her seventeen-year-old sister. His hair does that swoop thing across his forehead that requires altering how the hair grows—no one’s hair comes out naturally at a sharp right angle.

She gives him a smile full of reassurance that she does not feel. “Of course.”

“Fucking pick up, Ophelia!” Darwin bellows in her ear, through her implant. “You’re making things worse, drawing more attention we don’t need.”

Her pulse throbs in her neck, her hands tremble at her sides. But it’s a vestigial fear, left over from childhood. That’s all. She has vivid memories of Uncle Darwin leaning down to shout at her for some offense—real or imagined. She can still feel the warm spray of his saliva against her cheek, mixed with the bitter scent of his latest greens supplement.

But that was a long time ago. She’s an adult and well outside of his reach now. Even with private security at his disposal, Darwin wouldn’t send them here to get her. He’s not that desperate. Or stupid. She’s fairly sure.

Still, better to move this along.

“Is something wrong?” she asks Ray.

He shakes his head, stepping inside. “It’s just I’m going to need to ask you to deactivate all communication implants,” he continues, closing the door after himself. “It’s to prevent the possibility of interference. You won’t be able to use them out there anyway. Your messages and contacts will all transfer to the wrist-comm that has been assigned to you.”

Ophelia straightens up quickly. “No problem.” She concentrates on the six-digit code to deactivate her implant, while Darwin continues yelling in the background. She only left her QuickQ active in the hope that Dulcie—her younger sister, half sister, technically—would reach out. Ophelia is going to miss her eighteenth birthday next month. Wherein they were supposed to “ditch these mad dabbers and party like you’re actually still young.” But it seems Dulcie is still mad or, more likely, the family has gotten to her. The family gets to everyone.

The deactivation code numbers appear in her QuickQ interface right across Darwin’s mouth, first hazy and then growing sharper. She double-blinks deliberately to confirm, and he vanishes. If only it were that easy in real life. Of course, he probably—definitely—thinks the same thing about her.

“Right, so you should start feeling some drowsiness,” Ray says. “And then—”

Footsteps rush toward them behind the closed door, growing louder in their hurry. Ophelia grips the edges of the exam bed, fingers digging into the padding.

The steps stop outside the door, and Ophelia’s breath catches in her throat as the door to the prep room swings open. But it’s not the riot-masked, Pinnacle-branded mercenaries that she’s half expecting.

Instead, it’s another white-coated technician, accompanying a familiar figure, one with broad shoulders like an old-timey football player and a smooth, brown shaved head.

“Julius!” Ophelia sags in relief, grinning at him with a mix of bewilderment and delight. “What are you doing here? I told you last night I’d be fine.”

“Like I was going to believe any of that nonsense.” Julius waves his hand dismissively. But he looks rushed and ruffled, his vintage tie loose at the neck, and one crisp edge of his collar pointing upward above his bright yellow vest.

They’d said their good-byes at his apartment last night at her three-person—four, if you counted Marlix, Julius and Jonathan’s daughter, sleeping upstairs—going-away party, less than six hours ago. It ended only after a little too much synthetic tequila (Julius and Jonathan) and far too much of the nasty grape-flavored prep drink (Ophelia).

She and Julius both came up through Montrose’s Employee Psychological and Behavior Evaluation training program, several years apart. But they’d been friends as well as colleagues since the day she moved into the dingy office next to his.

As a bonus, he never once asked her about her family or even hinted that he knew who they were, though of course he did. Everyone did.

“I’m sorry, sir, but this is a private facility and—” Ray begins.

“First, it’s ‘Doctor,’” Julius says.

Ophelia works to not roll her eyes. He does like to trot that title out, usually when he’s looking to impress. Or get away with something he shouldn’t.




Monday, June 24, 2024

#Review - Chaos Song by L.R. Braden #Fantasy #Contemporary

Series: The Magicsmith # 6
Format: Kindle, 393 pages
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Publisher: Bell Bridge Books
Source: Amazon
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Everything Alex has struggled to create is about to come unraveled…

Nothing has gone to plan since she joined the PTF. Now mysterious "natural" disasters are happening all over the world, and all signs point to a fae attack. But by whom? And why now?

In the midst of this chaos, she faces Purity protesters, coworkers looking to undermine her every decision, and werewolves who can't stop snapping at each other long enough to prove they're safe to work with.

Now is not the time to abandon her fledgling alliance for an off-the-books mission, but if she doesn't… the fragile peace between the Realms may shatter.

Chaos Song, by L.R. Braden, is the Sixth installment in the authors The Magicsmith series. Alex Blackwood is the key protagonist of this series. She is a half practitioner, and half fae. She is able to imbue magic into weapons and has changed James, her vampire boyfriend's life in ways he never thought possible. After literally saving the world by stopping a sorcerer rebellion that happened in Baltimore, and other places, she then made a peace agreement with her Grandfather (Lord Bael) who leads the Fae court of Enchantment. 
 
The agreement means peace for one year before it needs to be renegotiated, or a war breaks out. Alex was given the title of Deputy Director in Charge of paranatural relations for the Paranatural Task Force (PTF). Her job is to match paranaturals with humans so they can fight together against rogue forces that want to see the world overrun. Alex really does have a whole lot to deal with in this installment. Her friend Emma, who was a witch, lost her sight acting as Alex's paladin. She has Victoria, the Master Vampire of Denver, pushing her to create the same pendants that she allegedly made for James, her vampire boyfriend who can now daywalk. 
 
She's supposed to pair magically inclined agents with human partners, but she has issues with the various wolves who have joined PTF not getting along with each other. Just when it seems she may have a solution, members of the Unified Church show up. The same Church who used to kidnap people and ship them overseas as slave labor. The Church, which suffered greatly in the Sorcerer uprising, now wants a say in if the PTF's goals of humans and paranaturals working together for the greater good but with a bigoted governor in charge of Colorado, Alex will be lucky not to be locked away. 
 
In the middle of all this chaos, Alex is ordered to investigate whether the Fae are starting a war when tons of human garbage is redistributed back on the beaches of the west coast, and other even more dangerous incidents seem to be spreading across the world. This means a visit to the Water Fae, and a shocking discovery that could mean an end to everything that Alex's has been working for. But the kicker is when the villain of this story creates so much havoc, that the one person who has Alex's back is severely injured, and put out of commission while Alex is literally fighting for the world's survival.
 
*Thoughts* I missed this series but thankfully have the next book in the series thanks to the publisher. I had to go back to my notes from the previous installment (Of Mettle and Magic) to remember the key characters like Alex Blackwood, James, Chase, Emma, and Kai. The author does a good job of summarizing events, but not overloading readers with everything that has happened so far. The key issue with this story is that once again a powerful villain, who was supposed to be locked up, has chosen to begin a war on the world using all sorts of new characters. Alex literally has to run around like a chicken with her head cut-off just to stay alive, and keep her ideas for a peaceful balance between humans and Paranaturals from imploding. However, trouble is ahead for our heroine, and this time, it may take a miracle to escape.





Friday, June 21, 2024

#Review - One Cursed Rose by Rebecca Zanetti #Romance #Suspense

Series: Grimm Bargains # 1
Format: Paperback, 368 pages
Release Date: June 25, 2024
Publisher: Kensington
Source: Publisher
Genre: Romance / Suspense

For fans of Scarlett St Clair and Sarah J Maas, New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Zanetti explores the forbidden and the taboo in this modern twist on Beauty and the Beast – the first in a seductive new dark romance series set in a world where information is power, and those who control the flow of information live like gods…

They christened me Alana—and while the name means beauty, beneath that surface is a depth I allow very few to see. I’m sole heir to Aquarius Social, a media giant about to succumb to an unseen enemy. My father’s solution is to marry me off to the son of a competing family. My reaction? Not a chance. Now I have just a week before the wedding to change my fate.

Who knew the unforeseen twist would be an assassination attempt on me and an unwanted rescue by Thorn Beathach, the head of the rival social media empire driving Aquarius under? The richest, most ruthless of them all, the Beast protects his realm with an iron rule: no one sees his face. When he shows himself to me, I know he’ll never let me go.

Thorn may think he can lock me in his enchanted castle forever, but I’m not the docile Beauty he expects. If the Beast wants to tie me up, I’m going to take pleasure from every minute of it . . .and we’ll just see who ends up shackled.


Rebecca Zanetti's One Cursed Rose explores the forbidden and the taboo in this modern twist on Beauty and the Beast – the first in a seductive new dark romance series set in a world where information is power, and those who control the flow of information live like gods. Key Characters: Thorn Beathach, and Alana Beaumont. This story is set in an alternative reality California where four families have all the power. Each of the families rely on various social media outlets to make them even more powerful.
 
For Alana Beaumont, that information is through social media. Reeling from her brother's death, she finds herself the heir to Aquarius Social. Alana is the only one in her family that is capable of charging their crystals that keep them in business. Her father devises a plan to marry her off to a competing business's family in an attempt to shore up the company. Alana is completely against this idea and has one week to find another way. After meeting with her intended from another family, Alana is drugged, and nearly kidnapped. Her savior? Thorn Beathach
 
Thorn is a recluse. Thorn owns Malice Media a direct competition with Aquarius Social. As the owner of his own social media company, he's done whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and doesn't let anything get in his way. But he has a weakness and that's Alana. He's obsessed with making her his, even if that means kidnapping her in order to protect her. But, when his life is on the line thanks to an attack on crystals that his company relies on to remain on top, the enemies find themselves turning to each other to figure out how to save him. And how to solve the mystery of how Alana's brother died. Can they put aside their differences and hate to help each other come out on top? 
 
*Thoughts* One of my issues with this book is that Thorn is literally a stalker who wants what he wants and doesn't care who gets in the way including Alana's father. Thorn is probably considered an anti hero. He’s demanding, authoritatively harsh and dominating. Killing, or fighting or ordering those things done is just in his nature. The only real positive is his relationship to his adopted brother Justice who is his right hand man in everything. The overly BDSM sections of this book reduced my rating to just okay. I literally posted that this book reminds me of Fifty Shades of Grey. The mystery behind Gast's death was suspenseful, as well as a serial killer that seems to be stalking Alana lookalikes. This is a strange world that relies on crystals, gems, diamonds, and people's emotions. I wish that the author had delved deeper into this rather than spend so much time on other things.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

#Review - Red Star Falling by Steve Berry, Grant Blackwood #Thrillers #Historical

Series: Luke Daniels (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Release Date: June 11, 2024
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Historical

From New York Times bestselling authors Steve Berry and Grant Blackwood comes an action-packed adventure: in the waning days of the Cold War, Luke Daniels embarks on a quest in search of the legendary library of Ivan the Terrible—the unlikely key to ending a looming threat orbiting two hundred miles above the earth. 

Wrapping up his latest assignment for the Magellan Billet, Luke Daniels receives a surprise visit from the head of a former-CIA operation named Sommerhaus — a failed attempt to assemble an espionage network within the Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion.  Sommerhaus ranks high on Luke’s list of painful regrets for it was during this mission that his friend, CIA case officer John Vince, was captured by Russian operatives and supposedly executed.  But Luke is provided some shocking news.  Vince is alive, in failing health, locked behind the walls of Russia’s brutal Solovetsky Island prison, and has a critical message he’ll give to no one but Luke.  Needing no further convincing Luke vows to bring Vince home.  
 
However, just as he manages to extract his friend from prison Vince tragically dies and his final words are rambling and incoherent.  Just bits and pieces.  But enough to plunge Luke into a hunt for something lost since the 15th century.  The legendary library of the first Tsar of All Russia, Ivan the Terrible.  
 
Within that priceless collection of rare manuscripts is the key to unraveling a modern-day cipher and stopping a secret Soviet satellite program that still exists.  But Luke is not the only one on the trail.  Others, both inside and out of Russia, want the library for a totally different reason — to re-start the Red Star program and finally unleash its destructive potential.  Luke’s mission is clear.  Find the lost library, solve the puzzle, and prevent Red Star falling.


"Two Romes have fallen (Rome, Byzantium), but the third stands (Moscow), and a fourth there will not be.”

Red Star Falling, by co-authors Steve Berry, Grant Blackwood's, is the second installment in the Luke Daniels series. This novel features a character from Berry's Cotton Malone series, Luke Daniels, a thirty-something Magellan Billet agent Malone has jokingly nicknamed "Frat Boy." This story involves fascinating historical events regarding Ivan III, the Russian Civil War, the Tsarist White Army, a convent destroyed by Stalin, the Russian covert space program, and the infamous UVB-76 Russian numbers station.

Wrapping up his latest assignment for the Magellan Billet, Luke Daniels receives a surprise visit from Sean Fernando, the head of a former-CIA operation named Sommerhaus; a failed attempt to assemble an espionage network within the Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion. Sommerhaus ranks high on Luke’s list of painful regrets for it was during this mission that his friend, CIA case officer John Vince, was captured by Russian operatives and supposedly executed.  

But Luke is provided some shocking news. Vince is alive, in failing health, locked behind the walls of Russia’s brutal Solovetsky Island prison, and has a critical message he’ll give to no one but Luke. Needing no further convincing Luke vows to bring Vince home along with Vince's lover Danielle Otero formerly of the Russian FSB. However, just as he manages to extract his friend from prison Vince tragically dies and his final words are rambling and incoherent.  

Just bits and pieces. But enough to plunge Luke into a hunt for something lost since the 15th century. The legendary library of the first Tsar of All Russia, Ivan the Terrible. Within that priceless collection of rare manuscripts is the key to unraveling a modern-day cipher and stopping a secret Soviet satellite program called Red Star that still exists. But Luke is not the only one on the trail. 

Others, both inside and out of Russia, including those you will likely surprise you, want the library for a totally different reason to re-start the Red Star program and finally unleash its destructive potential to take out the current President of Russia who has launched invasions against George, Crimea, and Ukraine.  Luke’s mission is clear. Find the lost library, solve the puzzle, and prevent Red Star falling.

*Thoughts* This is one those stories that is filled with historical events, and people including a former Russian President who was responsible for the end of Soviet Russia. While there is a lot of focus on historical events, I don't think I found it painful, or boring. As I said, this is the second of three Luke Daniels adventures. The first dealt with the Kennedy assassination. The authors claim the next book will release in 2026 because of their commitments to writing more Cotton Malone books, and Blackwoods own series.





Wednesday, June 19, 2024

#Review - A Ruse of Shadows by Sherry Thomas #Historical #Mystery #Romance

Series: The Lady Sherlock Series (#8)
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
Release Date: June 25, 2024
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Publisher
Genre: Romance / Historical / Victorian

Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as the bestselling Lady Sherlock series continues.

Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to pry the man her sister loves from Moriarty’s iron grip.

Disruption, however, comes from an unexpected quarter. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.

But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder?


A Ruse of Shadows is the Eighth installment in Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock series. Charlotte Holmes is accustomed to solving crimes, not being accused of them, but she finds herself in a dreadfully precarious position as Chief Inspector Talbot from Scotland Yard, along with Inspector Robert Treadles, arrives to interrogate Charlotte for suspicion of the death of Lord Bancroft Ashburton. Charlotte’s success on the RMS Provence has afforded her a certain measure of time and assurance. 
 
She's also found herself under the protection of Lord Remington which has kept Moriarty temporarily at bay. Taking advantage of that, she has been busy, plotting to pry the man her sister Olivia loves, Stephan Marbleton, from Moriarty’s iron grip. Lord Bancroft Ashburton, disgraced and imprisoned as a result of Charlotte’s prior investigations, nevertheless manages to press Charlotte into service: Underwood, his most loyal henchman, is missing and Lord Bancroft wants Charlotte to find Underwood, dead or alive.

But then Lord Bancroft himself turns up dead and Charlotte, more than anyone else, meets the trifecta criteria of motive, means, and opportunity. Never mind rescuing anyone else, with the law breathing down her neck, can Charlotte save herself from prosecution for murder? The story is told in a series of flashbacks since it begins with her under investigation for Lord Bancroft's murder. We see Charlotte and Mrs. Watson investigating a 25-year-old murder for Treadles. 

We see Livia staking out a house in Aix-en-Provence which might be the house where her Mr. Marbleton is being held by Moriarty. We see Paris where Charlotte and Livia's sister Bernadine is being held prisoner to guarantee that Charlotte does what Lord Bancroft demands. This investigation sees the return of Mrs. Farr who lost her younger sister in one of Charlotte's earlier cases and who has been looking for revenge on the man who was responsible ever since.

*Thoughts* A Ruse of Shadows required more focus than prior books because it juggled multiple mysteries, included alternating time lines, and heavily drew on pieces from prior novels in the series. One minute Charlotte is being investigated which forces her brilliant mind to find a way to explain her role in a key event. Then we have three minor characters Jimmy, Mumbles, and Jesse being used to thwart Charlotte, only to find themselves having their lives changed with an opportunity of a lifetime. 

Livia has been traveling all around the globe. She has no clue what Charlotte has been up to, even though she is writing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I have a lot of respect for Livia for being so willing to stand with Charlotte even after everything that happened a year ago in this series. What is more curious is that Charlotte and Lord Ingram's relationship picks up steam, literally, with an erotic love story written by Charlotte. 

Finally, there are things that happen in this book that will catch you off guard unless you read these books as they were released. Charlotte is an odd duck, very smart and logical but sometimes a bit lacking in tact and social elegance. But the author definitely makes you love her because she's not perfect. I have heard that the publisher fully supports the authors intent to keep writing this series which is a good thing because readers are anxious for a confrontation with Moriarty. 



The interrogation

August 1887

Before Inspector Robert Treadles had wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, he had wanted to be Chief Inspector John Talbot.

The chief inspector had retired the year after Treadles had been promoted to detective sergeant, but Treadles had worked with him once. The senior officer had been patient and fair, interested not in producing likely-seeming culprits to prosecute but in chiseling away at a case until he had revealed everything about the crime and its participants.

Under any other circumstances, Treadles would have been delighted to welcome the chief inspector out of retirement-and to observe the wise old policeman again in a professional capacity.

Under any other circumstances.

The parlor of the hotel suite in which he found himself boasted dark varnished wainscoting, scarlet velvet curtains, and a deep pile blue-and-gold Turkish carpet underfoot. The d├ęcor had been conceived to provide luxurious warmth during London's long and gloomy winter. But on this sultry day, the room closed in.

Chief Inspector Talbot, his thick head of white hair combed back, his gaze kind yet penetrating, asked, "Young lady, may I inquire as to the nature of your association with the deceased?"

The young lady in question, a woman in her mid-twenties, was attired in a full English garden. So many roses, foxgloves, and hydrangeas flourished upon her dress that it had taken a while for Treadles to discern that the garment was made of a light green muslin. And, of course, embroidered sprigs of lavender proliferated across the circumference of the hem.

In contrast to the gaudy botanical excesses of her frock, her expression was solemn and blank.

"Lord Bancroft Ashburton was the brother of my friend Lord Ingram Ashburton. Several years ago, Lord Bancroft asked for my hand in marriage. I did not believe we would suit and declined his proposal."

She spoke with a calm detachment, as if she were fielding slightly intrusive questions at a tea party rather than inquiries stemming from a murder investigation.

"And was that the extent of your acquaintance?"

"Not quite. Due to certain events, I am now no longer welcome in polite circles. After I became an exile from Society, much to my surprise, Lord Bancroft proposed again."

Treadles, who had been in the middle of tugging on his collar, stilled.

He had learned some time ago that Miss Charlotte Holmes had been highly successful on the Marriage Mart: Several of the proposals she'd received had been considered not just good but spectacular.

Even so, to number Lord Bancroft as a suitor not once but twice.

"And I surmise that, once again, you turned him down?" murmured Chief Inspector Talbot.

"He withdrew his offer, rather," said Miss Holmes. "But you are correct, Chief Inspector, in that after much consideration, I still did not wish to marry him."

"And yet lately you have visited him-repeatedly."

She was, in fact, the only person Lord Bancroft had met with in the weeks preceding his death.

The grandfather clock in the corner gonged. Treadles glanced at it. Half past three in the afternoon.

Miss Holmes cast her gaze in the same direction. "Our tea should be here."

As if on cue, a knock came. Miss Holmes excused herself, went to answer it, and returned with a laden tea tray. She poured for her callers and handed around a plate of baked delicacies. "The hotel provides an excellent Madeira cake. The tea cakes are very decent, too."

The hotel also provided suites that functioned much as residences, with private entrances from the street. That Miss Holmes had chosen to lodge at a hotel, rather than opening up 18 Upper Baker Street or Mrs. Watson's house, had signaled to Treadles her intention of only a brief stay in London.

Surely she hadn't planned on becoming a murder suspect in so short a time?

Miss Holmes took a bite of the tea cake she had recommended. "Lately I have called on Lord Bancroft a little more than is my wont."

She glanced at Treadles. "Are you sure you wouldn't care for a tea cake, Inspector?"

Treadles's innards, wound tight, rebelled at the thought of sugar and butter. He didn't know how she managed to enjoy-or at least appear to enjoy-the rich assortment on her plate. "I'm quite all right, thank you."

Chief Inspector Talbot, in his dove grey Newmarket coat, sipped his tea and studied Miss Holmes. He seemed very much a benevolent if youngish great-uncle, inquiring after the latest doings of his favorite grandniece.

"And what would be the reason, Miss Holmes, for your more frequent visits to Lord Bancroft?"

The older policeman, too, sounded as if he were on a mere social call. Wildebeests rampaged inside Treadles's stomach. Talbot could control an interview as well as anyone. But unlike some other investigators from Scotland Yard that Miss Holmes had dealt with, including Treadles himself at one point, Chief Inspector Talbot never underestimated women.

"I received a letter from Lord Bancroft," answered Miss Holmes, who consumed her tea cake at a steady pace. "He expressed a desire to see me. The missive was unexpected, as were his sentiments. He had retired from public life under occluded circumstances, and I was curious as to why he wished to meet again."

"Did you find out why?"

"He told me that he feared for his life."

Treadles hadn't expected the lies to start flying so soon. When they'd met earlier in the month, Miss Holmes had said nothing to him about Lord Bancroft cowering in mortal dread. He tugged at his collar again, wishing for a draught of fresh air.

"And it appears now," mused Chief Inspector Talbot, "that his lordship was right in his apprehension. But if you will forgive my question, Miss Holmes, why did he wish to burden you of all people with the knowledge that he might be in danger?"

"Do you believe, Chief Inspector, that there is any reason why he shouldn't have?"

"I can play games with you, Miss Holmes, but I won't." Chief Inspector Talbot set down his teacup and leaned back in his chair. "Part of the reason that I am investigating this case is a matter of personnel: Chief Inspector Fowler, who most likely would have been given the portfolio, is otherwise occupied.

"But in truth, that is only a convenient excuse. The real reason is that in the past I have worked with certain more obscure bureaus of the government and have become trusted for my discretion. For example, I have long known that Ravensmere, where Lord Bancroft dwelt for the better part of a year, is no ordinary lodging house for gentlemen but a cushioned facility for sensitive prisoners.

"I have also been informed, though much more recently, that you, Miss Holmes, far from languishing in your exile, have in fact become the celebrated-but-reclusive consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, who has, among other great deeds, cleared my young colleague here of suspicion of murder last December."

Treadles could only hope that Miss Holmes would not think he had been the informer. It had been discomfiting to learn from Chief Inspector Talbot that the senior officer already knew of Sherlock Holmes's true identity. But at the same time, that had been nothing compared to the shocking revelations concerning Lord Bancroft.

The previous autumn, during the investigation of a murder for which Lord Ingram had been-briefly-the chief suspect, Treadles had met Lord Bancroft. It had seemed natural enough that with his youngest brother in trouble, Lord Bancroft had come to Stern Hollow, Lord Ingram's estate, to lend moral and practical support. It had seemed equally natural that after the case was resolved, Treadles had never heard from or about Lord Bancroft again.

The police and the public had eventually learned that Lady Ingram, Lord Ingram's then wife, had run away with a man named Moriarty. And that the body found in Stern Hollow's icehouse had belonged not to her but to her twin sister, killed by Moriarty to frame Lord Ingram.

In private, however, Lord Ingram had informed Treadles that no, Lady Ingram had never formed a romantic liaison with Moriarty. She had done something far worse: She had worked for Moriarty and used her proximity to Lord Ingram, and therefore Lord Bancroft, who handled highly sensitive portfolios for the crown, to ferret out bits of intelligence to pass on to Moriarty's organization.

Treadles had been chosen to assist Chief Inspector Talbot because he was already acquainted with Miss Charlotte Holmes, the current case's-as of now-sole suspect. And because he had at least met the victim and knew something of his general background.

Only to then learn that he'd known nothing of the dead man when Chief Inspector Talbot notified him that Lord Bancroft had not stopped by Stern Hollow last autumn as a concerned brother but as a perturbed perpetrator. He had placed a body in the estate's ice well, hoping to frame his brother. Moriarty had played the spoiler and swapped one body for another, but the scheme had begun with Lord Bancroft.

As for why Lord Bancroft had done something so nefarious? In the end, it had been to protect himself: He had been living a secretly lavish lifestyle, which he had financed by selling state secrets in his keeping.

"You need not worry that the knowledge of your secret profession will travel beyond this parlor," continued Chief Inspector Talbot to a Miss Holmes who, on the surface of it, did not appear remotely concerned.

Once Treadles had believed her unfeeling. But now that he knew her-and himself-better, he saw that in the past he'd missed a number of clues with regard to her state of mind. For someone who delighted in food, last autumn she'd scarcely touched the myriad delicacies served at Stern Hollow.

And now, despite her matter-of-fact praise for the hotel's baked goods, she ate not with the savor of a gourmet, or even the gluttony of a gourmand, but the resolve of a ditchdigger, one with a great deal of cold, hard ground to bore through.

"Even if I weren't required to keep everything concerning this investigation in the strictest confidence, I still wouldn't have interfered with your livelihood," Chief Inspector Talbot went on. "But I will need you to answer my questions honestly and completely, because I also happen to know that it was as a result of Sherlock Holmes's inquiries at Stern Hollow that Lord Bancroft's misdeeds came to light.

"You tumbled him off his pedestal-into infamy among a select few, and into obscurity in the eyes of the public. You made him an inmate. I did not know the late Lord Bancroft very well, but I cannot imagine that he would have wished to entrust the matter of his personal safety to the one who had deprived him of his freedom in the first place."

Miss Holmes, having finished the small tea cake on her plate, set it aside and took a sip of tea. "The crown deprived Lord Bancroft of his freedom, Chief Inspector," she pointed out, with the sort of perfect logic that worked only for a very few. "But yes, I see what you mean. The immediate assumption would be that Lord Bancroft would want nothing to do with me and vice versa.

"To a certain extent, that is correct. For the past few months, my patroness, Mrs. Watson, and I have been living in Paris, where her niece studies medicine. Upon receiving Lord Bancroft's letter, I was not moved to travel across the Channel solely for his sake.

"But recently we visited England for a different reason, and I thought I might as well look in on Lord Bancroft before I left again. A man such as he is hardly neutered when kept behind bars. It would be wiser, I felt, to find out his purpose."

"But once you found out his purpose, what compelled you to care whether his lordship's life was in danger? If you will pardon the observation, Miss Holmes, you are of a cool disposition and not given to sentiments another young woman might feel toward a man who has twice proposed to her. I can easily envisage you brushing aside Lord Bancroft and his sense of impending doom."

This was very blunt but . . . not wrong. Indeed, sometimes Treadles worried about his friend Lord Ingram, so in love with this woman who, by temperament, might not be able to return his affection in equal measure.

Miss Holmes took no offense at Talbot's remark. If anything, she seemed to warm up a bit toward the older man. "True, Chief Inspector. It would have troubled me had Lord Bancroft escaped. But his destruction at the hands of his enemies? That would not have affected either my daily appetite or my nightly rest.

"Lord Bancroft understood that. He offered me five hundred pounds sterling to find his faithful acolytes, who had scattered in the wake of his arrest, so that they could come to his aid. I told him that I would not bestir myself-not for him, in any case-for less than two thousand."

"I applaud your astute negotiation, Miss Holmes, but may I remind you that Lord Bancroft's crimes came to light largely because of his very unkind act toward Lord Ingram. Your friend Lord Ingram. Yet you still took him on as a client, this man who betrayed your friend?"

Chief Inspector Talbot appeared distressed at this line of questioning; Miss Holmes, not so. She had been about to go out when the policemen had arrived. Now, as if realizing she would not be going anywhere in a hurry, she removed her hat and placed it on her knees.

"Chief Inspector, I took on Lord Ingram's estranged wife as a client, too, when they were still married-and for far less than two thousand pounds. Also, do you believe Lord Ingram would have advised me differently, had he accompanied me to my initial meeting with Lord Bancroft?

"His lordship, as Inspector Treadles can tell you, has a truly noble soul. As disappointed as he was in his brother, he would not have wanted Lord Bancroft to die. Had I been able to save the latter's life and win myself two thousand pounds in the bargain, he would not have questioned my loyalty to him but only said, 'Well done, Holmes.'"

Chief Inspector Talbot cleared his throat. "That is, of course, between you and Lord Ingram, Miss Holmes. But did you also feel no compunction about the provenance of Lord Bancroft's funds? He would have paid you with money derived from the illicit sale of crown secrets, would he not?"

The wide brim of the hat in her lap featured an abundance of flowers, a circular boulevard of yellow silk petals. She smoothed the trio of ostrich plumes that erupted from its crown, dyed a matching, eye-jabbing yellow. "Are you trying to persuade me, Chief Inspector, that Lord Bancroft, a son of a noble family, and a man gainfully employed for many years in a position of high trust, did not possess two thousand pounds that he had procured by honest means?"




Monday, June 17, 2024

#Review - Masquerade of the Heart by Katy Rose Pool #YA #Fantasy #Romance

Series: Garden of the Cursed (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Release Date: June 18, 2024
Publisher: Holt Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance

In the conclusion to this romantic YA fantasy/mystery duology from Morris Award finalist Katy Pool, Veronica Mars meets a glitzy and gritty Gilded Age–inspired fantasy world in which cursebreaker Marlow pretends to be in love with a powerful noble as she searches for her missing mother.

The city of Caraza sits poised on the edge of chaos—and cursebreaker Marlow Briggs is at the center of a deadly struggle for power. In the tragic aftermath of the Vale-Falcrest wedding, Marlow is spurned by Adrius, who refuses to speak to her and publicly vows to find a noble wife before the year is out. Despite her heartbreak, Marlow is still intent on breaking his compulsion curse. To do so, she’ll have to play loving daughter to the man who cast it—the man who’s hellbent on reshaping Caraza in his own image, no matter the cost.

But the closer she gets to her long-lost father, the more Marlow starts to question if he’s really the villain she’s made him out to be. As the lines between enemy and ally blur, Marlow must decide if she’s willing to sacrifice her heart’s desire to save a city that wants her dead.

Masquerade of the Heart is the second, and final installment in Katy Rose Pool's Garden of the Cursed duology. Key Characters: Marlow Briggs one of the best cursebreakers in the City of Caraza. Vale Falcrest former heir to the Falcrest Family after the events of the first installment. Like the first book, we follow Marlow's POV, but we also get a few Adrius chapters sprinkled in this time too. The city of Caraza sits poised on the edge of chaos—and cursebreaker Marlow Briggs is at the center of a deadly struggle for power. 
 
In the tragic aftermath of the Vale-Falcrest wedding, Marlow is being spurned by Adrius, who refuses to speak to her and publicly vows to find a noble wife before the year is out while his sister Amara truly believes that she is guilty of trying to murder her father and will do anything to make her life miserable. Despite her heartbreak, Marlow is still intent on breaking his compulsion curse. To do so, she’ll have to play loving daughter to the man who cast it—the man (Cormorant Vale) who’s hellbent on reshaping Caraza in his own image, no matter the cost if he can get his hands on a valuable grimoire.
 
As Marlow navigates a city where far too many people want her dead, be it the gangs (Reapers & Copperheads) she’s crossed in the Marshes or the aristocrats (Evergarden Society) offended by her very presence in their gilded halls, the closer she gets to discovering what really happened to her own mother Cassandra, and the more Marlow starts to question if her father is really the villain she’s made him out to be. As the lines between enemy and ally blur, Marlow must decide if she’s willing to sacrifice her heart’s desire to save a city that wants her dead. 
 
*Thoughts* As a certain singer once said, "Sorry Not Sorry" but adding in a romance for the sake of a certain group of individuals was time consuming and a waste of time that should have been spent on Marlow and Adrius. Also, after everything that Marlow has been through for the past how many years, for the author not to allow any sort of resolution with her mother disappoints me. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be, but I would have loved to see reconciliation. Marlow is a likable character not because of all the crap that is done to her, but how she manages to keep her sanity after the backstabbing and betrayal by people who were supposed to be friends.


ONE


Warm rain poured over Marlow as she stood outside the towering front gate of Falcrest Hall.

The gate was shut, its iron finials piercing the dark-gray sky like fangs. Invisible wards snaked through the bars to keep unwanted visitors out.

And Marlow knew she was just about as unwanted as they came.

Clutching a bouquet of deep-violet blooms to her chest, she raised her other hand to press the button of the enchanted intercom. A crackle of static burst from the speaker, and then a prim, flat voice answered, “Falcrest Hall is closed to visitors at this time.”

Marlow cleared her throat. “I have a delivery.”

There was a pause on the other side of the intercom. Marlow tugged her hood closer to her face—she knew her image was being projected to the head steward, or whoever it was she was speaking with.

“One moment,” the steward said curtly, and then the intercom clicked off.

Several long, silent minutes passed, the rain steadily pounding down on Marlow in sheets. She was far beyond drenched, and despite the sticky heat, she started to shiver.

Just as she was beginning to suspect that the steward planned to leave her dripping and shaking until she eventually gave up, she spotted a figure coming down from the main steps of Falcrest Hall.

Through the heavy downpour, Marlow could only discern the figure as a dark smear against the gray sky, until they were just a few dozen paces away.

Marlow’s heart dropped into her stomach.

Amara stepped up to the gate. She was dressed entirely in black, from the sculptural cape she wore over a columnar gown to the enchanted umbrella that floated just above her, shielding her from the downpour. Every line of her clothing, her severe makeup, even her shining raven hair, was aggressively polished.

Marlow could not help seeing her own bedraggled appearance through Amara’s eyes—her tangled, damp blond hair, the plain, ill-fitting clothes she’d taken from her old wardrobe in Vale Tower, her pale face lined with shadows from too little sleep.

Amara’s wine-red lips lifted into a snarl. “What? Have you come here hoping to finish my father off?”

Marlow swallowed thickly, letting the flowers drop to her side, and with them, any pretense as to her purpose here. “I came to speak to Adrius.”

An incredulous laugh barked from Amara’s mouth. Her dark eyes blazed. “You are never going to see or speak to anyone in my family ever again.”

Marlow didn’t let herself flinch from the deep hatred in Amara’s gaze. She knew there was little point in arguing—Amara had no reason to hear her out. As far as she knew, Marlow had just tried to murder her father in cold blood.

She should have known coming to Falcrest Hall would be pointless, but she had to try. Adrius’s life might depend on it.

“Please.” She gripped the bars of the gate. “I just need five minutes. Please.”

“And give you a chance to dig your claws into him again?” Amara scoffed. “Never.”

“I wouldn’t have come here unless it was important.” Marlow’s knuckles were turning white with the force of her grip, as if letting go of the gate would mean giving up on this foolish mission.

“Oh, is it?” Amara said mockingly. “Well, if it’s so important, then why don’t you tell me?”

Amara didn’t know about the Compulsion curse Adrius was under. She may have suspected something—at least Silvan had thought so—but she didn’t know the full truth. And Marlow wasn’t going to spill the secret to her. Adrius may have been Amara’s brother, but like her father, Amara saw him as something that needed to be controlled.

There was no way in hell Marlow was going to hand that control over to her.

But as Marlow looked at her face, she began to see the cracks in Amara’s armor. The faint shadows under her eyes. The reddish tint to her cheeks and nose that made it apparent she’d been crying.

Amara couldn’t know about Adrius’s curse, that much Marlow was firm on. But Amara wasn’t as emotionless as she tried to appear. Her father was dying somewhere inside Falcrest Hall, and as horrible a man as he was, Marlow could see that Amara’s grief for him was real.

She deserved to know the truth about who had tried to take him from her.

“It’s about your father,” Marlow began.

Amara’s face twisted with undeniable fury. “Don’t talk about my father.”

“I know you hate me,” Marlow said, desperation seeping into her words. “And you have every reason to. But you don’t know the whole truth about what happened. If you’d just listen—”

“Marlow?” a voice called over the drum of the rain.

It had come from behind Marlow. She and Amara both turned to see who was there.

Marlow’s heart slammed against her ribs as her gaze landed on Vale.

He stood beneath the shelter of his own enchanted umbrella, cobalt-blue suit blending almost seamlessly into the gray clouds behind him. His warm, boyish features were creased with concern, his gray eyes trained on Marlow. She had last seen him only a few hours ago, in the living room of her apartment in Vale Tower, where he’d embraced her as Marlow finally put the pieces together about what he’d done.

He stepped toward her. “Marlow, what are you doing here?”

A chill skittered down her spine. “Did you follow me here?”

Vale’s brow wrinkled with confusion. “Of course not. Amara is hosting a dinner for the heads of the Five Families and the Falcrest vassal houses.”

Marlow turned back to Amara in surprise. It hadn’t even been two days since her father was attacked, and Amara was already hosting a dinner?

Then again, maybe it made perfect sense. She noted the tension in Amara’s jaw. This dinner wasn’t just a social occasion. Amara’s grief was real, but so was the political reality of the Five Families. And if Marlow knew one thing about Amara, it was that she always put strategy above sentiment. With her father lying half-dead, Amara would be under pressure to shore up the Falcrest family’s power before someone took advantage of their weakened position.

“So?” Amara asked, ignoring Vale completely, her gaze searing into Marlow. “What is it you wanted to tell me?”

Marlow could feel Vale’s eyes on her, too. A hysterical, desperate urge welled up in her. She wanted to grab Amara through the bars of the gate and say, It’s him, he’s the one responsible for your father’s attack, don’t let him in, don’t let him near Adrius, please, Amara.

She choked down the words. Vale had no idea that Marlow knew anything about what he’d done—anything about the Compulsion curse he’d placed on Adrius, the order he’d given him to stab his own father in the heart. And it had to stay that way, until Marlow could figure out what he was really up to.

She lowered her gaze, uncurling her cold, wet fingers from the bars of the gate. “Tell Adrius I’m sorry,” she said, and then turned away and retreated into the downpour.

“Keep her the hell away from my family!” Amara snarled at Vale.

Vale didn’t even acknowledge the demand. His gaze was pinned on Marlow, gray eyes dark like storm clouds. He stepped toward her and laid a hand on her shoulder before she could pass.

Marlow braced herself against a shudder.

“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” he said in a grim tone.

Talk about what? Marlow showing up at Falcrest Hall in the most foolish of fool’s errands? Her back teeth clenched against the anger building in her gut, but she forced herself to meet Vale’s gaze with a nod.

Vale returned her nod with satisfaction and then patted her once on the shoulder and released her.

It took all her willpower to turn away and allow Vale to walk through the gates of Falcrest Hall, knowing that Adrius was somewhere inside. Knowing he was still under the Compulsion curse. Knowing Vale was the one who had cast it.

And not knowing just what Vale would do with that power.


TWO


The first course had already come and gone by the time Adrius made his entrance to the dining room. He could still see the remnants of some fussy appetizer involving candied figs and thinly sliced cured meat.

“Adrius,” Amara greeted him from the head of the table. The crease beside the corner of her mouth announced her displeasure. “I didn’t realize you were joining us.”

Adrius sauntered past the seated guests, swiping a random glass of wine off the table as he went to flop down in an empty chair to Amara’s left. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it.”

Truthfully, he had decided to skip this little gathering, intending to spend his evening getting so exquisitely drunk he couldn’t see straight. But at some point, staring down at the bottom of an empty bottle of wine, he’d abruptly decided that actually, a dinner with the heads of all the most important families in Caraza did sound like fun—if only because he knew his mere presence would wreck whatever plan Amara was furiously trying to execute.

Ever since the day of the wedding, Amara had done her level best to ignore Adrius’s entire existence, and he was finally sick of it.

He smiled blithely at her over the rim of his wineglass and turned his attention to the guests. Representatives of all the Falcrest vassal houses were seated around the table, as well as the heads of the other Five Families—Zeno Morandi, Dahlia Starling, and Cormorant Vale. Missing, of course, was the Delvigne family. While still nominally one of the original Five Families, Adrius’s mother’s family had long been subsumed by the Falcrests.

“So!” Adrius said brightly, wine sloshing out of his glass and splashing onto the fine tablecloth. “What are we all talking about?”

“Actually,” Amara said crisply. “We were discussing you. And I really should thank you for proving my point so succinctly.” She turned to address her guests. “As you can plainly see with your own eyes, Adrius is hardly fit to take over Falcrest family as heir.”

Adrius gave an exaggerated wince. “Not going to sugarcoat it, are you?”

A balding man with a thin nose and spectacles cleared his throat. Adrius recognized him as Jean Renault, the head of one of the most powerful of the Falcrest vassal houses. Adrius had always found him to be criminally uptight and stuffy, but he did hold a lot of sway with the other vassals. “While we appreciate your candor and your opinion on this matter, we do have to wonder—what is it exactly that makes you fit to take over? Your brother was the one Aurelius named as heir. Clearly, he felt Adrius was up to the task.”

Adrius could sense the tension in Amara as her jaw tightened. But her voice was even when she replied, “My father made that decision before Adrius decided to disown the family.”

Renault looked at Adrius. “Is that true?”

Adrius shrugged. The truth of it didn’t matter—what mattered was whether Amara could successfully convince these men that it was in their best interest to put her in charge. She’d failed to convince their father of that—and Adrius supposed he was at least a little curious to see if she’d fare any better with these men.

“It is,” Amara said. “The night before my wedding, Adrius walked out of Falcrest Hall and declared he was never going to return. I believe both my husband and Lord Vale can attest to this.” She glanced to her other side, where Darian sat, ever the dutiful husband.

“He did spend that night at Vale Tower,” Darian confirmed.

“When Adrius walked out of Falcrest Hall, he renounced any claim as heir,” Amara went on in a cool, authoritative voice. “Therefore, the only person with any legitimate claim to the Falcrest family is me.”

The heads of the vassal houses seemed to take a moment to absorb this, glancing around at one another. Finally, Renault spoke again. “We appreciate your position on this, but surely you can understand our … hesitation in putting a teenage girl in charge of the Falcrest family.”

“With all due respect,” Amara said coolly, “it is not your decision to put me in charge or not.”

Renault narrowed his eyes. “Yet I think you’ll find that if the vassal houses are not confident in your leadership, you may lose our support altogether. We need to think of our own families’ fortunes, which are intimately tied up in the Falcrest family operations.” He shot a quick glance over to Zeno Morandi. “We might need to consider whether our interests might be safer in someone else’s hands.”

Adrius stifled a snort. The threat was clear. If Amara didn’t capitulate to the vassal houses’ demands, they would pull their investments from the Falcrest family altogether and find somewhere else to put their money. If even a few of the biggest vassals pulled out, others were sure to follow.

“I assure you,” Amara said in an icy tone, “I am more than capable of running the Falcrest family. I’ve been preparing for this duty my entire life.”

She sounded brutally calm, but it wasn’t enough to fool Adrius. He’d known her for eighteen years, and he knew how to tell if she was angry. And right now, she was furious. She hated that she needed approval from these people, who she no doubt considered beneath her.

“If it would make the vassal houses more comfortable,” Vale cut in from down the table, “perhaps a solution can be reached. Perhaps a … level of oversight might put some of your concerns to rest?”