Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Russian Obsession by Nikki Navarre 🌼 Book Tour & Gift Card Giveaway 🌼 (Romantic Suspense)



Christabel Orlova remembers nothing before the night she woke in a Turkish bazaar with two passports, two governments on her tail, and no memory of her shadowy past. Armed only with keen wits, survival instincts and mad skills in the research lab, Christa has three goals. Stay alive. Stay one step ahead of her hunters. And find a cure for the Ebola bioweapon whose secret is locked in her brainbox—before it wipes out the human race. Gypsy, loner and wild child, her first rule of survival is never to trust.

Ex-Russian fighter pilot Max Vasylko is a gun-for-hire smuggler who’ll fly contraband cargo anywhere in the world, no questions asked. But he can’t fly far enough to forget the wife and daughter who died in an Ebola outbreak. When a bioweapon from a rogue U.S. program is to blame, Max’s mission turns personal. Find the scientist responsible for designing the super virus—and make her pay. The last villain he expects is Christa: a smart, sexy, scrappy survivor in hiking boots who’s lost her own brother to the virus.

Now Max is flying high above the African jungle with enemy agents in his six and a sweet redhead he’ll risk his backside to protect. Christa’s tempted to trust this hot-as-hell jet jockey with his wildcat courage and Mafia past. But the vaccine isn’t the only secret locked in her head. To uncover the truth, Max and Christa must win their toughest battle yet. The battle of hearts between them.



The biggest bouncer she’d ever seen was powering toward her like a tank on steroids. Packing a machine gun the size of a bazooka.
Teetering on her stilettos, Christa froze. The music throbbed in her ears like a heartbeat. An electric current of panic pulsed through her veins. Cheesed-off cops on one side and a bad guy bouncer on the other.
And, clutched tight in her perspiring palms, the McGuffin. A briefcase holding five million doses of a deadly virus. Or a cure that could save the world.
“Hey, doc.” A voice dipped in Brooklyn brass grated in her ear. “I swear to God, I ought to turn you over my knee.”
Alarm and annoyance jolted through her—swamped by overwhelming relief. She spun to face six and a half feet of towering menace. Ultramarine eyes seared through her like lasers. Stripped to his tee shirt, bronzed biceps and wicked tattoo sheened in sweat, Max Vasylko spelled danger with a capital D.
The breath shuddered out of her tight-locked lungs.
Along with a whopping dose of sass.
“What kind of grunting Neanderthal are you, major? Were you raised in a cave? If you think you’re laying a hand on me, you’re going to need an army—”
“Army of one, baby.”
His low growl in her ear sent goose bumps racing down her arms and curled her toes in her boots. His big hands closed around her naked shoulders. Heat snaked from his callused palms and sheeted down her spine.
Max pushed her into a vacant banquette scattered with cards and cash. Her bottom hit the red vinyl seat with a bounce. He snagged the briefcase from her startled arms and tossed it at the opposite seat.
“Hey!” she cried. “That case isn’t a football. You can’t just—”
“News flash. I just did.”
He crawled right in after her. Right between her thighs.
Her heart was a kettledrum roaring in her ears. She slithered and scrambled over the slippery seat. He took every inch she gave him and kept on coming. Which was how she ended up flat on her back.
He crawled right on top of her, weight braced on those impressive arms.
For a moment in time that stretched surreal, like a Dali clock melting in the desert sun, he crouched over her. She forgot about the jumpy cop with the trigger finger, the tank-sized bouncer packing heat, the backstabbing ex-boss sprawled somewhere on the floor.
The world narrowed to the span of Max’s powerful shoulders and the primal musk of saffron and cedar. Above his neckline, the spiky tips of another fierce tattoo curled around his neck.
She was guessing that hidden ink spread all the way across his shoulders. Maybe all the way down his back. And that was a lot of real estate to cover on a man like Max. With the flashing lights behind him, shadows cloaked his face. And every inch of him scorched her skin.
“Wow.” She managed a husky whisper. “You’re…really…something.”
“Pot and the goddamn kettle,” he growled.
Right before he kissed her.

  

Only a Duke Will Do by Tamara Gill ❤️ Book Blitz & Giveaway ❤️ (Historical Romance)



Without a Season, Lady Isolde Worthingham captured the Duke of Moore’s heart at a country dance. But on the eve of her wedding, a scandal that rocked the ton and sent her fleeing to Scotland alone and unwed, leaves her perfectly planned future in a tangle of disgrace and heartbreak.

Merrick Mountshaw, the Duke of Moore loathes the pitiful existence he hides from the ton. With a scandalous wife he never wanted, who flaunts her many indiscretions, life is a never-ending parade of hell. When the one woman he loved and lost returns to London, he knows he can no longer live without her.

But vows and past hurts are not easily forgotten. Love may not win against the ton when a too proper Lord and Lady play by the rules.





“I’ve lost him. And I love him still.” Her voice broke at the realization.
Her mother shushed her, pulling her into an embrace. “I know, darling. I know you do. But there is nothing for it now. You will have to return with us to Dunsleigh.”
Isolde thought of all she had lost, not just Merrick, but her future, their plans. Their trip away to the Continent, Paris, Rome, and all the delightful places in between that they were going to visit, crumbled in her chest like her heart. “He’s really going to marry her, isn’t he?” Even saying such a thing sounded absurd, and yet it was the truth. The truth as she would know it from tonight onward.
“Yes, he is.” Her mother’s face was a mask of concern and pain. “I’m so sorry, darling. You did not deserve this.”
Isolde strove to calm down before her sobs woke her sisters and they started with their meddling questions. Her body hiccupped for breath; her eyes, so swollen and sore, hurt when she blinked.
“Come, you must sleep.” Her mother helped her stand, and Isolde didn’t fight her decree. Tiredness would succeed over her mind and, for a sweet moment, she’d forget what had transpired this night. It was enough to make her lie down and try.
She settled under the blankets. The maid knocked on the door and her mother ushered her into the room, taking possession of the glass of whisky and a cold compress. Isolde downed the drink in one gulp, grateful for the burning amber liquid and the cooling cloth against her eyes.
The tears started afresh when the comforting embrace of her mother wrapped around her, pulling her close and holding her as if to never let her go. Not since she was a child had her mother acted in such a way, and some of the despair left her, knowing she had the support of her family.
She would need them in the months to come.
She took a shuddering breath. How could a night once filled with so much excitement and anticipation twist into such despair and horror? Rolling onto her side, the ring Merrick had given her pressed into her cheek.
She held out her hand and looked at the cluster of five round diamonds, each of them encased in a bed of silver and sitting on a band of gold that was etched into a leaflike pattern. The ring had been Merrick’s grandmother’s, and it had been the most beautiful gift Isolde had ever received.
But no longer. Now it represented a fractured circle of trust, pulled apart and unfixable.

She yanked it off, unable to throw it no matter how much she longed to. She reached over and placed it on the cabinet beside her bed, looking at it as it twinkled prettily under the candlelight. The ring and its beauty were as fickle as its owner.



    

White Spirit by y Lance Morcan & James Morcan ❤️ Spotlight & GIVEAWAY ❤️ (Historical Romance)



Based on the remarkable true story of Irish convict John Graham, WHITE SPIRIT is an epic historical adventure set in 19th Century Australia.

After escaping from the notorious Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, Graham finds refuge with the Kabi, a tribe of Aborigines who eventually accept him as one of their own.

Attempts to recapture Graham are orchestrated by a variety of contrasting characters working for the all-pervasive British Empire. They include Moreton Bay's tyrannical, opium-addicted commandant Lord Cheetham, the dashing yet warlike Lieutenant Hogan, native tracker Barega and the penal settlement's captain, Tom Marsden.

Marsden's young daughter Helen, a progressive lady ahead of her time who is both an egalitarian and a feminist, boldly inserts herself into the clash between the Irish convict, her father and Moreton Bay's other iron-fisted rulers. Helen complicates things further when she finds herself in a Pride and Prejudice-style love triangle with men on opposite sides of the conflict.

When Scottish woman Eliza Fraser is found shipwrecked and close to death in Kabi territory, Graham and his legion of pursuers, as well as the Irishman's adopted Aboriginal family, are all forced to navigate a multi-faceted rescue mission. The precarious rendezvous is made all the more dangerous by Helen Marsden's ethically-driven meddling that often outwits the men involved.

WHITE SPIRIT is not only based on arguably the great Australian (true) story, a sweeping tale that encapsulates all the nuances of the southern continent's unique history, it also provides readers with detailed insights into the tribal life of First Australian (Aboriginal) peoples.

***Contains strong elements of action/adventure and violence***




Set in 19th Century Australia, White Spirit is based on the adventures of Irish Convict John Graham who escaped the brutal Moreton Bay penal settlement in what was then New South Wales, and lived with a tribe of Aborigines who eventually came to accept him as one of their own.

This epic tale caters as much for lovers of romance novels as it does for action and adventure fans. A love triangle adds to the storyline’s tension.

It’s fair to say few have heard of John Graham. That’s surprising, to us at least, because John’s adventures in the wilds of an untamed Australia must surely rank with the most incredible true-life tales of survival. Not only Down Under, but anywhere in the world. Having both lived in Australia for many years, and having experienced first-hand the harshness of its climate and terrain, we, the authors, can only marvel at John’s bravery, endurance and fortitude.

Though White Spirit is first and foremost a novel and therefore a work of fiction, many of the adventures described therein happened – exactly as related in some cases, and with some embellishments for drama’s sake in others.

In reality, John Graham’s story was so unbelievably remarkable it needn’t have been dramatized. However, as novelists, we couldn’t resist expanding upon and adding characters to certain true-life events. The great challenge, of course, was the need to always stay true to the broad historical realities while subtly infusing “fiction”.

We sincerely hope we have also done justice to the Indigenous Australians in our writing. We strived for accuracy and balance in our portrayals of these unique Aboriginal people; we show the cruelty the Aborigines were capable of, and we show their love for family, their community-mindedness, their incredible hunting and tracking skills, and their ability to survive in the most unforgiving of environments.

Our new release book, WHITE SPIRIT (A novel based on a true story), was inspired by, arguably, the great Australian (true) story; it’s a sweeping tale that encapsulates all the nuances of the southern continent’s unique history, and it provides readers with detailed insights into the tribal life of First Australian (Aboriginal) peoples.

After escaping from the notorious Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, on Australia’s east coast, Irish convict John Graham finds refuge with the Kabi, a tribe of Aborigines who eventually accept him as one of their own.

Attempts to recapture Graham are orchestrated by a variety of contrasting characters working for the all-pervasive British Empire. They include Moreton Bay’s tyrannical, opium-addicted commandant Lord Cheetham, the dashing yet warlike Lieutenant Hogan, native tracker Barega and the penal settlement’s captain, Tom Marsden.

Marsden’s young daughter Helen, a progressive lady ahead of her time who is both an egalitarian and a feminist, boldly inserts herself into the clash between the Irish convict, her father and Moreton Bay’s other iron-fisted rulers. Helen complicates things further when she finds herself in a Pride and Prejudice-style love triangle with men on opposite sides of the conflict.

When Scottish woman Eliza Fraser is found shipwrecked and close to death in Kabi territory, Graham and his legion of pursuers, as well as the Irishman’s adopted Aboriginal family, are all forced to navigate a multi-faceted rescue mission. The precarious rendezvous is made all the more dangerous by Helen Marsden’s ethically-driven meddling that often outwits the men involved.



Copyright © Lance Morcan & James Morcan 2016

Authors' note:

This novel was inspired by historical accounts of the true-life story of Irishman John Graham, who, in 1825, was transported by convict ship to the British penal colony of Australia. While that in itself was nothing out of the ordinary – after all Graham was but one of an estimated one hundred and sixty-four thousand convicts shipped ‘Down Under’ – it’s what followed that sets him apart…



“Those who lose dreaming are lost.” –Aboriginal proverb


Part One


GATEWAY TO HELL


Prologue



Big Red brushed flies from his face as he studied the distant billabong from the cover of trees and dense foliage. Long grass hid the freshwater pool from sight, but he knew it was there even though he’d never been in these parts before. He could smell water even from a hundred yards distant.
Normally, Big Red began each day with a cool drink to assuage his thirst, but on this particular day he’d been harried by Aboriginal hunters who had ambushed him as he approached his usual watering hole. That had been a while back – at dawn. He’d easily evaded the hunters, but their presence had forced him to journey some distance to find water. Already the morning sun was high in the sky, it was hellishly hot and he was dying for a drink.
The approach to the billabong looked clear, but still Big Red hung back. Long experience evading men who wanted to kill him had taught him patience. Besides, he could sense danger.
From his hiding place, he studied the hilly terrain. To his left and right, the rainforest continued, uninterrupted, north and south toward distant horizons while directly ahead, miles beyond the billabong, the blue waters of the ocean could be seen, sparkling in the sunlight. Those waters, he knew, marked the eastern edge of the vast continent that was home for him and his fellows. That’s where he was headed today, but first he had to drink.
Between Big Red and the billabong was a solitary tree stump. The remains of a once-proud, towering gum tree, it had been charred almost beyond recognition – a result of some long forgotten bushfire or lightning strike. Something about it bothered him. It stood there, like a lone sentinel, and that struck him as a bad omen. He debated whether to seek water elsewhere.
Finally, his thirst got the better of him, and he cautiously emerged from the trees and approached the billabong.
Behind the charred tree stump, a solitary Aborigine stood stock still, his spear clasped close to his side. Moilow had been standing there, unmoving, since dawn. He’d been about to give up when he sensed a presence in the rainforest beyond his hiding place.
A respected member of the local Kabi tribe, Moilow was, in many ways, typical of others of his race. Intelligent, dark, deep-set eyes peered out from beneath furrowed brows; his broad nose protruded above full lips, and he wore a black, matted beard to complement his bushy hair, which he’d tied in a knot; his coal-black skin glistened and his near-naked, wiry frame oozed strength and robustness – the end result of fifty thousand years’ evolution in this unforgiving, inhospitable land; his chest and limbs were scarified as a result of his following the age-old practice of lancing the flesh with shells; and his nakedness was covered only by a skimpy loincloth fashioned from the skin of a dingo, the native wild dog that ranges over much of the continent. The loincloth, once yellow like the dingo that wore it, had browned with age.
In other ways, Moilow was not typical of his race. For a start, he was taller than most Aboriginal men, and his legs were well formed, not skinny like the majority of his fellows. He was also a solitary figure, preferring his own company to that of others, which explained why he was here now, alone.
His desire for solitude, even when hunting, had brought him to this very spot after separating from his hunting companions in the darkness of the pre-dawn. He’d assumed he wouldn’t have long to wait until one or more kangaroos arrived for their first drink of the day in keeping with their daily routine.
To his surprise, he’d been proven wrong. By mid-morning, apart from a harmless carpet snake that slithered by, no creature had shown itself. That was about to change.
He identified the creature as soon as it emerged from the trees. It was a prized red kangaroo – a big buck. Moilow estimated the roo was at least a full head taller than himself.
Now, as the big red cautiously approached, Moilow willed himself to remain still. No easy task considering he’d maintained the same frozen position for several hours, and his legs were beginning to cramp.
The mid-summer sun beat down on him unmercifully, and, in the high humidity, sweat streamed from every pore. He had to fight against wiping the sweat from his eyes, and he had to ignore the myriad of flies that had settled on his face. Some crawled into his ears and one began exploring his left nostril. Still he resisted the urge to swat them away.
In fact, Moilow wasn’t totally still. His eyes constantly moved, flicking from left to right as he waited to catch another glimpse of his quarry; and the fingers of his free hand caressed the shark’s tooth that hung from a shell necklace on his chest – a habit he’d gotten into ever since his wife had gifted it to him at the end of the wet season before last.
Moilow loosened his grip on the spear he held. He’d been clasping it so tight his right hand was cramping. The spear, which he’d fashioned from the tecoma vine, was longer than himself by some two feet. It was encased within a woomera, or spear-thrower, which he’d secured in a trade with a fellow hunter. The woomera, traditionally made from mulga wood, had several useful functions; on this occasion it would be used for its main purpose – to launch the spear with considerably more power than Moilow could summon from his strong right arm alone.
The lone hunter couldn’t see or hear his intended prey, but he daren’t risk even a quick peek in case he gave himself away. He guessed the roo had stopped to graze or to check out the surroundings. Not for the first time he cursed that he hadn’t covered himself in mud from the billabong when he’d had the chance. Without the protective mud, he was aware there was a chance the roo would smell him. Fortunately, the air was still so there was no breeze to carry his scent.
Big Red had stopped. He was close enough to see the water now, but still he couldn’t bring himself to hop the last fifty yards or so to assuage his thirst. The charred stump still worried him, standing there like the sentinel it was between himself and the billabong. He looked around, sniffed the air and his big ears twitched as he brought all his senses into play to check for danger.
Finally, he threw caution to the wind and bounded toward the billabong, each mighty hop carrying him around twenty feet.
Moilow heard him coming before he saw him. As the big roo drew level with the stump, the hunter stepped out from behind it and, in one fluid movement, raised his woomera and launched the spear.
Big Red saw the danger too late, and veered away in mid-stride. The spear caught him side on. Such was its force it went right through his body, its barbed tip protruding out the other side.
At first, Big Red felt no pain. He bounded away, oblivious to the weapon that had just skewered him.
His elation at having escaped was gradually replaced by another feeling: a niggly pain that extended from his chest to his limbs. His coordination started to go – and then the pain hit. It was a white hot pain than almost caused him to fall.
Now conscious of the black man following him, he tried to keep moving, but he was done. He collapsed in a heap and lay there panting and pawing at the air, trying in vain to regain his feet. Blood flowed from his wounds and bubbled from his nose and mouth.
Moilow arrived to find his prey close to death. He stooped to pull the spear from the dying animal. It took several attempts to pull it free.
Big Red could only watch as the black man raised his spear. He heard foreign sounds coming from the man’s mouth. He wasn’t to know the man was addressing him.
“You are free now, great red one,” Moilow said as he drove the spear home. Its barbed tip pierced the big red’s heart, killing him instantly. “You can now join the others who have gone before you.” Breathing hard from the sudden exertion, Moilow immediately cast aside his spear and used the woomera to saw open the roo’s chest. For this task, he used a piece of quartz rock inserted into the spear-thrower’s handle for just this purpose. As he finally cut through the breastbone, he reached in, grasped the big red’s heart and pulled it out, then, without hesitating, he held it tight against his chest and close to his own heart.
Eyes closed, and oblivious to the blood that dribbled down his chest to his groin, he recited another respectful chant to honour his prey.
#
It was late afternoon before Moilow caught up to his hunting companions. The big red, which he carried over his shoulders like a backpack, had slowed him down even though he’d removed its guts and innards. It was the biggest roo he’d killed in some time.
Moilow saw the others before they noticed him. A glance told him they hadn’t fared as well as himself, and they looked noticeably downcast. Between them, the six Kabi hunters carried an assortment of game, including a python, several goannas, possums and wallabies, but not a roo between them. Still they hadn’t noticed the newcomer.
A mischievous grin crossed Moilow’s face. “Is that all you fellas managed to catch?” he asked.
The others looked around and saw their fellow hunter who was now grinning hugely. Their eyes rested on the big red, which now lay at his feet.
Pointing at the kills his companions carried, and then looking pointedly at the big roo, Moilow said, “You would have had more luck if you had sent the women in your place.”
The hunters tried to hide their embarrassment behind rowdy banter, which they directed Moilow’s way.
“We killed a dozen big reds earlier,” said one.
“Yes we tired of waiting for you so we cooked them and ate them,” said another who rubbed his stomach exaggeratedly.
“Why do I not believe you?” Moilow asked.
The good-natured banter continued as Moilow hoisted his kill over his shoulders once more and joined the others as they resumed their trek home.
Moilow surveyed his companions. Like himself, they were all bearded, and their physiques were lean and scrawny yet impressive at the same time. They’d been hardened by the harsh land and by the unforgiving elements they had to contend with year in, year out. And, like Moilow, their chest and limbs were scarified, and they wore their bushy hair tied in a knot atop their heads. Unlike Moilow, several used the knot as a repository for spare spear heads and other useful items.
The hunters were led by Mirritji, one of the Kabi clan’s senior elders whose advanced years had slowed him down, but not prevented him from enjoying the thrill of the hunt on occasion. Moilow studied Mirritji as he walked ahead of the others, his impossibly bowed legs covering the ground with surprising speed for someone so bandy and so aged. As always, Moilow’s heart went out to him. The elder had been like a father to him, and the younger man had nothing but respect for the old man.
Following close behind Mirritji was Gabirri, an experienced hunter and respected warrior who had proven himself numerous times in skirmishes with the Kabi’s enemies. Gabirri was followed by Moilow’s best friend Turo, a big, raw-boned warrior who had more kills to his name – human kills that is – than any other man in the tribe.
Turo, who carried a dead adult python over his broad shoulders with effortless ease, dropped back to join Moilow. “Good kill,” he mumbled, looking at the carcass his friend carried.
“I got lucky,” Moilow said.
They walked in companionable silence until they reached their encampment. The site was a grassy knoll overlooking a sandy beach. Beyond it, the blue of the vast ocean merged with the blue of the cloudless sky, rendering the horizon invisible to all but the keenest eye.
The encampment was home to around a hundred Kabi, the region’s predominant tribe. It comprised an assortment of lean-tos and bivouacs fashioned from driftwood, branches, brush and grass, and had a very temporary feel to it – temporary because, like all Aborigines, the Kabi were a nomadic people who were constantly on the move in search of food.
Mirritji’s clan had been here less than a week, and they would depart within a few days if the hunting didn’t improve soon. Unfortunately, the fishing had gone poorly also, and clan members were hungry.
Excited children, all naked, greeted the hunters as they strode into the camp. Adults – some naked, some semi-naked – hid their disappointment as best they could as they viewed the hunters’ slim pickings. They reserved their heartiest congratulations for Moilow whose sizeable kill impressed everyone.
Moilow made his way to his bivouac where he was greeted by his wife Mamba and their two young children. Eight-year-old Murrowdooling jumped into his father’s arms and four-year-old Carravanty clung to his father’s leg as Moilow lowered the roo carcass to the ground.
Mamba, a pretty woman with sparkling brown eyes and noticeably finer features than any of the other women, greeted her husband with a smile. “You did well today, Moilow,” she murmured.
“Yes,” a proud Moilow agreed. “We will eat well tonight at least.”
#
Flames from a huge communal cooking fire lit up the night sky, casting shadows over the assembled clan members. The fresh carcasses hung from a makeshift spit above the fire, their flesh rapidly turning a golden colour in the heat.
All eyes were on the carcass of the big red Moilow had killed. It was as big as all the other carcasses combined. Though unskinned when it was placed over the fire, the roo’s pelt had soon been burnt off. Hot coals placed in the animal’s gut would doubly ensure the meat would be tender in the extreme when finally ready to eat.
As was the custom of the Kabi, proceeds of the hunt were shared amongst the clan members. The one-for-all, all-for-one philosophy was the only one that worked for these people, for they relied on each other for their very survival.
Women dispensed the cooked meat to the menfolk first. Mirritji and the other senior elders were given the best, juiciest and most tender cuts; next best went to Moilow and the other hunters who had provided the food; the next best cuts were dispensed to the other men, and finally the women and children shared what was left.
Moilow and Turo sat side by side, deep in discussion, as they ate. While they talked, Mamba watched her husband with pride. She knew she was the envy of the other women, some of whom openly lusted after Moilow, and she silently thanked her totem for sending her such a handsome man – and a good provider to boot.
Turo caught Mamba’s eye and flashed her a sly smile. She quickly looked away, ever-aware of Turo’s unbridled lust for women – especially for those already spoken for, like herself. Mamba believed four wives was more than enough for any man, and so, Moilow’s friend should be satisfied and stop looking to add to his harem.
Mamba returned her attention to Moilow. Her heart rejoiced when she observed him fondling the shark’s tooth that hung from the necklace she’d given him. It was a habit she found endearing, and she was delighted he was so attached to the necklace. He’d worn it permanently since receiving it.
As soon as the last of the food was demolished, the womenfolk and their children withdrew to their bivouacs, leaving the men to talk. The discussion, which was led by the elders, concerned the availability of food, or, more accurately, the shortage of food. It was agreed they would mount one more hunt, leaving at first light next day, before deciding on whether to stay at the current campsite any longer.
One by one, the men retired. Moilow and Turo were among the first to withdraw. They planned an early start, before dawn, to make the most of the next day’s hunt. Guided by the light of a full moon, they weaved their way through the camp.
Moilow bade Turo goodnight as he continued past his friend’s bivouac. Turo’s makeshift home was one of the biggest in the camp. It had to be, to accommodate his wives and thirteen children.
As Moilow neared his own bivouac, which was located a little way from the others, he found he was hurrying. He realised he suddenly needed to be with Mamba.
Moilow stooped and entered the bivouac. He was pleased to find Mamba still awake. Their sons lay nearby, fast asleep.
“Mamba--”
“Sshhh!” she whispered. “Do not wake the boys.” She grabbed his hand and guided him down onto her.
Moilow was pleased to discover Mamba was naked beneath him. He was even more pleased to discover she needed him as much as he needed her. She guided him into her and they proceeded to make love. Wild, urgent love.
#
Next morning, Mamba was woken by the first rays of the sun as they streamed into the bivouac and chased the darkness away. Looking around, she realised she and the boys were alone. Moilow had departed before dawn to hunt, as he’d promised.
Mamba smiled to herself at the memory of their night of lovemaking. She found she was already looking forward to another night like the one just gone.
While the men were away hunting, Mamba and the other women took turns to look after the children and attend to their daily chores. The chores included gathering fruit and berries in the surrounding bush, and collecting mussels, oysters and other shellfish from the rocks and rock pools along the shore.
Those children who were old enough either helped their mothers or amused themselves by playing games or swimming in the sea. In the heat of the day, when it became too hot to remain outside, they slept in the shade.
For Mamba, the day passed slowly, as the days tended to do when Moilow was away. She was always anxious when he was away and completely content when he was with her. On this occasion she was unaccountably anxious for some reason.
Mamba relaxed when she saw Turo emerge from the rainforest beyond the encampment. She knew Moilow wouldn’t be far behind.
The first she realised something was wrong was when cries of alarm carried to her. She looked up to see a woman running toward Turo who had fallen to his knees. The woman was Turo’s youngest wife.
Mamba and several other adults in the immediate vicinity hurried to investigate. Only as she drew near did she notice Turo had suffered a nasty shoulder wound. Blood flowed freely from it.
“What happened?” Mamba asked. She looked toward the nearby rainforest and then back at Turo. “Where is Moilow?” She experienced a sinking feeling when she noticed Turo was looking at her strangely. “Where is my husband?” she demanded.
Turo struggled to his feet and looked squarely at Mamba. “Moilow was killed,” he said simply. “We were ambushed by our enemies…the Noonuccal.”
The mere mention of the Kabi’s long-time enemies prompted Turo and other men close by to spit on the ground, such was their hatred of the Noonuccal – a tribe known and feared for its cannibalistic practices.
Turo added, “Your husband fought bravely and died like the warrior he was.”
Mamba looked from Turo to the other women, as if to solicit a response from them that would make everything alright. They had no such response. They could only look away. Finally, she asked, “What did they do with him?”
Turo hesitated. “They dragged his body away,” he murmured.
Mamba screamed and ran back to her bivouac. Distraught, she gathered up her two sons who had been sleeping, and held them tight to her.
The oldest, Murrowdooling, sleepily asked, “Where is Moilow?”
“Hush, child,” Mamba sobbed. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her sons their father was dead. Not yet.
Her grief was all the greater because she knew why her husband’s body had been taken. Only cannibals claimed the bodies of those they killed. If Moilow hadn’t already been eaten, he would be soon. Of that she had no doubt.
Mamba raised her head skyward, and screamed. It was a long, heart-wrenching, primordial scream that came from her very soul.


1

A wiry Aboriginal tracker ran fast through the undergrowth, following tracks only he could see. He carried a spear in one hand and a nulla nulla, or club, in the other. Wearing only a loincloth, he covered the ground with effortless ease, his bare feet hardly touching the sun-baked earth.
This was Barega, one of the last surviving members of the mysterious Joondaburri, a tribe whose menfolk were renowned up and down Australia’s east coast for their superior tracking abilities. In the language of his people, his name meant the Wind, which was appropriate for he ran like the wind. To the British soldiers who employed him, he was simply known as the Tracker.
Although only average height, Barega’s legs were out of proportion in that they were unusually long in relation to his torso – a fact that gave him a distinct advantage in his chosen occupation. Few men, black or white, could match him for speed in a cross-country foot race, and, like others of his tribe, he could run all day long, seemingly without tiring or succumbing to the relentless heat.
The tracks he followed were those of three convicts who had escaped custody earlier that morning. They were heading west, away from the coast and away from Moreton Bay – the site of Britain’s newest penal colony and home to two hundred or so convicts and soldiers. The route was leading deeper into the tropical rainforest that hugged this part of the coast. It became progressively steeper as the hills gave way to mountains.
Barega was accompanied by three soldiers who followed him on horseback. He glanced back at them from time to time to ensure they remained in contact. Though their horses were doing most of the work, it was clear to him the men were having a hard time of it in the heat. They stopped every so often to drink from their water bottles.
Leading the way was Lieutenant Desmond Hogan, a dashing Englishman who was a career soldier through and through. Hogan’s ambition to succeed in his chosen career was hinted at by his senior ranking, which was an achievement in itself for one so young. He was only twenty-six. His rapid rise up the ranks had undoubtedly been influenced by the fact that his father and his father’s father had both been high ranking army officers, and he was candid enough to acknowledge that, but that didn’t change the fact he was a man of some ability whose promotion had largely been based on merit.
Hogan caught Barega’s eye. “How close, Tracker?” he asked.
Pulling up, the tracker pointed at the sun, which at that moment was to the northeast, and then he pointed dead north. “Soon, Mister,” he said by way of explanation, though no explanation was necessary.
The young lieutenant had used Barega so often he could readily understand the other’s hand signals. On this occasion, the tracker had indicated they’d catch up to their quarry by mid-day when the sun would be where he’d indicated – dead north. By Hogan’s reckoning, that would be in an hour’s time give or take. He glanced around at his two men. “Another hour should do it,” he said.
“Thank Christ,” one of them muttered.
Like their commanding officer, the two soldiers – both privates – had removed their red tunics, which now hung loosely from their saddles. It was the one allowance Hogan made for the heat, but only when out of sight of the penal settlement as it bucked the army’s rigid dress code.
Behind the pair, in the distance, Hogan could still see Moreton Bay. Trees concealed the penal settlement that had taken its name from the bay, but from the current vantage point there was an unobstructed view of the bay itself. And beyond it, the blue of the Pacific Ocean merged with the blue of the sky. It was a sight to behold.
Hogan and the others weren’t here to admire the view, however. They’d been tasked with capturing the runaways, and to a man they were aware the sooner they accomplished that the sooner they could return to base and enjoy some well-earned refreshments – and escape the accursed heat and humidity.
Ahead of them, Barega had resumed running. His black skin glistened with sweat as he picked up the pace. It was clear he sensed his prey were close now.
The soldiers followed, staying close to the tracker so as not to lose touch with him in the dense rainforest. Vines and creepers clawed at them, threatening to unseat them from their mounts, as they proceeded. Despite their discomfort, the soldiers were grateful the convicts had opted to keep to a well-worn trail carved out over the centuries by nomadic natives. They knew if their quarry had opted to deviate from the path, the horses would be no use to them and they’d have been forced to follow on foot.
Lieutenant Hogan knew something his men didn’t know, however. He alone knew they weren’t expected to bring all of the runaways back alive. Before setting out, the penal settlement’s commandant had made it very clear to Hogan privately that he’d be upset if more than one escapee survived.
Lord Bertram Cheetham’s reputation for cruelty had exceeded him before he took up his new posting as Moreton Bay’s commander-in-chief four months earlier. Since then, Hogan and the other officers had come to see Cheetham’s reputation was well deserved; he viewed the convicts as animals and expected the soldiers under his command to treat them as such. As a result, floggings had become a daily event, the overworked convicts were starved and regularly beaten, and the dysentery and other ailments that plagued them and some of the soldiers, too, had reached epidemic proportions. Nearly every single convict had at least one serious illness or injury and, to make matters worse, medical care was basic to say the least. Despite this, as long as a convict could draw breath, he was forced to endure sixteen-hour days of hard labour, seven days a week.
So harsh were the conditions – reportedly as harsh as those at infamous Norfolk Island – a few convicts had opted to commit suicide rather than serve out their sentences, and more than a few others were contemplating such drastic action.
Another consequence of the cruelty was barely a week passed without one or more convicts attempting to escape. Where they hoped to escape to was anyone’s guess because Moreton Bay was many hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization. Convicts escaping overland risked death by heatstroke, thirst, starvation, snakebite or unfriendly natives, and escape by sea was out of the question because the only vessels visiting Moreton Bay were those servicing the penal settlement.
Rebellion was inevitable, of course, and since Lord Cheetham’s arrival illness, escape attempts and deaths amongst the convicts were all increasing. This had only served to infuriate Cheetham whose solution was to work the convicts even harder and to impose harsher punishments for any transgression.
Attempts by Hogan and the other officers to appeal to the commandant’s common sense, if not his humanity, had fallen upon deaf ears. Hence Cheetham’s private instructions to Hogan earlier that morning – to make an example of these latest escapees and ensure only one of them was returned to Moreton Bay alive. So desperate was he to deter the other convicts from attempting to escape.
Such instructions didn’t sit well with Hogan, but he felt his hands were tied. Experience had taught him if he returned the three escapees alive, the eccentric Cheetham was likely to order the execution of all three, and possibly one or two others as well. He’d seen that happen before.
In a clearing, Hogan glanced behind him and was distracted by the sight of a sailing ship some two or three miles offshore. She was far to the south – so distant that he wouldn’t have noticed her had it not been for her billowing white sails. They could easily have been mistaken for clouds had it not been a cloudless day. The young officer knew immediately the vessel was the Hoogley for she was the only one scheduled to visit Moreton Bay this week. She was bringing another shipment of convicts from the Parramatta penal settlement near Sydney Town. A regular occurrence these days. Had Hogan not been prevailed upon to supervise the capture of the escapees he’d have been tasked with greeting the Hoogley and her cargo of convicts. As it was, that particular chore would fall to his commanding officer on this occasion.
Though compassion and sympathy didn’t figure highly in his make-up, the lieutenant almost felt sorry for the men incarcerated in the hold of the schooner he was observing. Almost but not quite. He was aware that convicts unlucky enough to be shipped out to Moreton Bay, or to the other hell-hole that was Norfolk Island, were considered the most incorrigible of the convicts. Beyond Repatriation was the army’s official term for these men. As far as the military was concerned, they were unlikely to taste freedom again let alone ever return to their countries of origin. As far as Hogan was concerned, they deserved to rot in hell.
Hogan’s horse stumbled on the protruding root of a tree, forcing him to focus on the task at hand. He realised he’d lost sight of the tracker, and dug his heels into his mount’s flanks, encouraging the horse to move faster.
#
Offshore, the Hoogley was making hard work of it as she plied north through high, rolling seas. The conditions were the lingering aftermath of a storm, which, up until the previous evening, had battered the three-masted schooner without let-up since she’d departed Sydney Town six days earlier. Her timbers creaked in protest as her bow rose and fell alarmingly, and the waves that crashed over her threatened to tear the sails from their masts. In the rigging, high above deck, riggers hung on for dear life as they carried out their death-defying duties.
Below deck, the conditions were scarcely any better. As well as putting up with the rolling motion of the vessel, the forty mainly Irish convicts and their guards had to contend with the constant sea spray and saltwater, which poured through the portholes and open hatches, and which ensured the men remained permanently wet.
The convicts had the worst of it for they had been confined below deck for the entirety of the voyage. Permanently shackled, their ankles were secured by chains, which, in turn, passed through a longer chain bolted to the hull’s interior at each end of the hold. Their condition wasn’t helped any by the lack of adequate food and water throughout the voyage, nor by the temperatures, which soared in the confined space by day and dropped to near-freezing by night.
The overpowering stench of urine and shit combined with the ever-present bilge water that sloshed about in the bottom of the hold was all pervasive. An outbreak of dysentery early in the voyage had swept through the vessel, affecting convicts, guards and crew alike, adding to the misery of all.
Not all the convicts had survived the voyage. One, a sickly young man from Belfast, had succumbed to pneumonia. His body had been unceremoniously dumped at sea two days earlier. And several others were critically ill. Their condition wasn’t helped any by the fact there was no doctor or even any rudimentary medical facilities on board.
Harsh though this voyage was, it was nothing compared to the three or four-month journeys these convicts had originally endured out from England. In some cases, fatalities had been as high as forty per cent, and on one ship fatalities had topped sixty per cent.
Two survivors of that hellish voyage aboard the most notorious of prison ships were now aboard the Hoogley. Twenty-eight-year-old John Graham and the slightly younger Noel Thomas whose date of birth was unknown – unknown to Noel at least – were chained together toward the rear of the hold. Originally from Dundalk, in County Louth, Ireland, they were boyhood friends. The former had been sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia for stealing ten pounds from a shady employer he alleged hadn’t paid him, while the latter – hackneyed though it may sound – had been sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread.
The two friends were a study in contrasts. John was broad-shouldered and taller than most of his companions, and certainly better looking. His unruly black, shoulder-length hair framed a pale but interesting face that women invariably found attractive. What really set him apart, however, was his startling blue eyes. Ever-alert, they missed nothing. Even here, chained in the hold of a ship, John constantly surveyed his fellows and the guards who watched over them.
Noel, on the other hand, was short and wiry, and not overly handsome. Nevertheless, he had an engaging manner and a cheeky wit that endeared him to all – all except his jailers that is. His cheekiness constantly landed him in trouble, with fellow convicts and guards alike, and John had had to come to his rescue more than once.
Chained alongside them was elderly Dubliner who was ailing rapidly. Leith Donovan, who claimed to be forty-five but looked to be all of sixty-five, had been ill even before departing Parramatta. He began throwing up as soon as the schooner set sail and was still throwing up now. In the last six days he’d lost damn near half his bodyweight.
“Hang in there, Leith,” Noel urged as Donovan disgorged the last of the meagre rations he’d managed to keep down. The remains of those rations, including vestiges of cabbage and corn, ended up on Noel’s leg.
“Sorry, Thomas,” Donovan mumbled as he made a half-hearted attempt to wipe the mess from his companion’s leg with his hand.
John glanced at Noel. His friend’s expression signalled that he thought it likely Donovan’s journey would end soon – an opinion that John shared.
Noel waved to the nearest guard to catch his attention. “We have a sick man here,” he said.
The guard, a callous Englishman who took every opportunity to show his contempt for the Irish, just grinned at Noel. He quickly looked away when he noticed John staring at him.
John Graham’s startling blue eyes had that effect. Few men could hold his gaze. There was something behind those eyes that unnerved them.
#
At the same time, in the hinterland behind Moreton Bay, the three convict escapees were so exhausted they had slowed to a walk. While they’d started out full of running in the cool of the pre-dawn, the exertion, heat and thirst had quickly reduced them to a slow shuffle. They weren’t helped either by the leg irons they wore. The heavy shackles made running almost impossible, and the clinking noise they made gave the convicts’ whereabouts away to anyone within fifty yards or so. Only the thought of what awaited them back at Moreton Bay should they be caught kept them going. To a man, they’d rather die than return to the place they called hell.
They were a mixed bunch. About all they had in common was they were English convicts with a shared yearning for freedom. And they were armed. The older man carried a tomahawk and the two younger men carried knives.
Tim Brady, the ringleader, was the oldest of the three by some years. A forty-five-year-old Cornishman, he was considerably shorter than his two companions, but he was almost as wide as he was tall. What he lacked in height he made up for with strength, and it was widely accepted he was the strongest of all the convicts – and all the soldiers, too, for that matter – at Moreton Bay.
Brady’s companions, both Cockneys and both in their early twenties, naturally looked to Brady for guidance. After all, the escape had been his idea. Unfortunately for them, Brady was now out of ideas and so exhausted he was no use to them or to himself for that matter.
The two Cockneys pulled up when they realised Brady had fallen behind.
“Hurry up Brady!” the younger man shouted.
Gasping for breath, the Cornishman tried to run, but his legs gave out from under him and he crashed to the ground. “Water,” he mumbled. “I need water.”
“We all need water, Brady!” the older Cockney said. “We ’ave to keep movin’.”
Brady slowly pushed himself to his feet and stumbled forward to catch up with his companions.
The two Cockneys looked at each other.
“He’s slowin’ us down,” one mumbled.
“Yeah fuck ’im,” the other said.
The pair took off, leaving Brady to fend for himself.
“Wait, you bastards!” Brady called. He hurried after them, desperate not to be left behind.
The first the Cornishman realised they had company was when the tip of the tracker’s spear skewered him from behind. He saw its tip emerge from his chest before he felt any pain. And what pain he felt was only fleeting as Barega’s nulla nulla smashed his skull, killing him moments after the spear had entered him.
Barega stopped only long enough to retrieve his spear then resumed running after the other two. Behind him, the sound of horses’ hooves told him the soldiers were close by. Ahead of him, he could hear the two Cockneys’ clinking leg irons as they crashed through the undergrowth.
Although less than fifty yards ahead of their pursuers, the surviving escapees had no clue they were about to be captured, or worse. For the moment, they were blissfully unaware of Brady’s untimely end or the fact that their freedom could now be measured in minutes, or less.
The first they realised the game was up was when the sound of the horses reached them. They immediately hid in dense bush and waited, their knives drawn.
Looking through the foliage, they were confused by a series of movements too quick for the eye to follow. Barega moved with such speed and stealth he gave the impression there were two or even three of him.
In the confusion, the younger Cockney moved, revealing his hiding place. It was the last thing he ever did. The tracker’s spear went straight through his throat, pinning him to a tree.
Terrified, the surviving convict took off, running blindly through the trees.
Not for the first time that day, twenty-three-year-old Frank Patterson pondered the wisdom of attempting to escape. In fact, he had regretted his decision almost immediately, but he’d made his choice and had to keep going.
Patterson didn’t see the nulla nulla that flew through the air, striking the back of his head and stunning him.
Barega retrieved his weapon and prepared to finish off the stunned Cockney. He was distracted by the arrival of Hogan and the others. His hesitation gave Patterson time to retrieve the long-bladed hunting knife he’d dropped. Barega brought his nulla nulla down hard, shattering his victim’s forearm and causing him to scream out in agony.
The tracker looked on, amused, as the desperate convict retrieved the fallen knife with his good hand and shaped up to attack again.
To Patterson’s surprise, Barega suddenly lay prone on the earth. The young Cockney glanced up to see the two soldiers with Hogan had their muskets pointed his way. Two shots rang out as a single volley. Such was his shock Patterson fell to the ground, convinced he was dead. It took him a moment or to realise he’d been spared. He looked up to see the soldiers were laughing at him.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, lad!” one of the soldiers shouted, prompting more laughter. They’d pulled the same trick on other escapees, aiming their weapons high or wide of their would-be victim, though Patterson wasn’t to know that.
Grinning, the tracker rose and pulled the long-bladed knife from the Cockney’s grasp, claiming it for himself. Such spoils were his as of right. That was the arrangement he’d made with the British. Barega beamed at Hogan who motioned to him to lift the relieved but still shocked survivor to his feet and start marching him back to Moreton Bay.

   

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To the Studs by Roxanne Smith ❄️ Book Tour & Gift Card Giveaway ❄️ (Contemporary Romance)



No one says no to fiery but talented home designer Neve Harper—which is how she convinces her elusive neighbor, Duke Kennicot, to help out with her latest renovation job. Not only is Duke a design aficionado, he’s got the inside scoop on the cabin’s owner. And since Neve’s ulterior motive is a romance with the boss, Duke is her ideal wingman. Except from the moment they’re alone in the remote Ozark mountain location, Neve discovers Duke is just as headstrong—and a whole lot sexier—than she ever realized. Duke has always made it clear she’s not his type. Yet the simmering tension between them says otherwise….

Duke had been warned to steer clear of hot-tempered Neve, but his resolve is lessening with every heated exchange—and every smoldering touch. By the time Neve unearths a dangerous, age-old mystery buried on the property, Duke is ready to do just about anything to keep the brazen beauty safe….


Duke waited until Angel Face shuffled into the elevator before rapping his knuckles across Neve’s door. He avoided men around Neve at all costs. Being gay was harder than he’d thought it would be. Was Angel Face superhot? Should he make a smutty comment or smile coyly at his butt as he walked past?

I need gay lessons. Hell of a thing to come to terms with, especially after two years of pulling it off.

Pajama-clad and curled into a ball on her ultrachic sofa, a beige monstrosity set square in the center of the high-ceilinged room atop a thick white rug, Neve didn’t pause in shoving yogurt-covered pretzels down her gullet to bother with a greeting. The scenery didn’t differ—sofa, pajamas, snacks, bad television—but she seemed more subdued than usual.

He sat next to her and snatched the remote from the coffee table. “Just because you renovate and design for a living doesn’t mean there aren’t channels besides HGTV. Why can’t I live next door to a chef? Or a chiropractor. Someone useful.”

“I’m assuming it’s because you were a real asshole in a previous life.”

“Can we watch Survivor, maybe try a movie once in a while?” He swept a lock of his hair over his shoulder and grinned as Neve rolled her eyes.

She’d never hidden her envious love of his hair. “Do you do that on purpose? Play with your hair and wear tight black jeans and T-shirts to torture straight females?” She turned her attention to the flipping channels on the television. “Because I would.”

“Really? If you were a hot lesbian, you’d deliberately entice straight men? That’s brutal.”

“That’s me. Brutal.” Normally, she made proclamations like that with a little more pride.

Duke chewed his lip and looked her over. She had her glossy, coffeecolored hair pulled into a rakish bun on the top of her head, wore her favorite plush robe over plaid pajamas, and one hand steadily ferried pretzels from the bag to her face.

Pretzel crumbs and all, he’d still get hard if he stared too long. Neve joked about converting him, but if she ever made an honest effort, he wouldn’t hesitate to wrap her killer legs around his waist like a bow, wind a lock of her silken hair through his fist, and make good on every vulgar fantasy he’d concocted over the last two years.

Duke shifted to find a more comfortable position in his awkwardly tight jeans, jeans growing tighter with each vivid image popping into his cranium—Neve on her back with her hair fanned out like a dark halo, Neve’s haughty mouth humbled by a moan of ecstasy, his palms on the inside of her thighs, spreading— Jesus Christ, man. I need to get laid.

    



A Florida native, Roxanne Smith has called everywhere from Houston to Cheyenne home. Currently residing in Roswell, New Mexico, she’s an avid reader of every genre, a cat lover, pit bull advocate, and semi-geek. She loves video games, Doctor Who, and her dashing husband. Her two kids are the light of her life and provide ample material for her writing.

   


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