Western Wednesdays—HARLAN by Frank Roderus

In one of the most dangerous and horrifying cases of mistaken identity, readers race against the clock alongside one of the most disreputable of heroes in Harlan, by Spur award-winning author Frank Roderus. Have fun rooting for the bad guy to win the day against the worst guy in this deceptive thrill ride of a Western!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Prologue

Vernon Kinder grabbed the dipper and tried for the third time to rinse the sharp, acid taste of vomit from his mouth, but water was not what he needed here. Whiskey might work but he hadn’t brought a bottle with him, dammit. He wondered if maybe Kenny had. Or…Vernon shook his head. It didn’t matter if Will Howard had any inside his soddy. Vernon wouldn’t set foot back inside that house even if he would get a lifetime supply of bonded whiskey for doing it. The sight of what was in there…Vernon gagged again just from thinking about it. He spun around and bent over with the dry heaves. Christ, he’d already lost everything he’d eaten for the past three days. A thin stream of mucus was all he could get out. Jesus! He straightened up and reached for the water dipper.

“D’you think they did the kid too, Vern?” Kenny asked, ignoring Vernon’s puking.

Vernon spat, rinsed and spat again. “I don’t know and I ain’t gonna look. I ain’t going back in there. Not for love nor money.”

“Somebody has to. They’ve got to be buried, you know.”

“Fine, but I ain’t gonna do it. Let the marshal come out and do that shit.”

“The marshal doesn’t have jurisdiction out here, Vern. That’d be the sheriff.”

Vernon scowled. “Then don’t hold your breath. That sonuvabitch ain’t been to this end of the county since just before the last election. And we’uns voted for Delton then so I don’t expect we’ll see our sheriff anytime soon.”

“Somebody has to do something though, Vern. Jesus God! Will is laying dead in there and both them kids and…and Margaret buck naked and…and…what all was done to Margaret wasn’t human, Vern. Wasn’t even human. It must’ve been Indians that killed them all. Must’ve been. Couldn’t be no white man cut…did all that shit to them. Couldn’t of been.”

“Maybe,” Vernon said cautiously, looking around as if he expected to see a screaming horde of wild savages spring at them from Will Howard’s hog pen or possibly the hen house. “Maybe it was Injuns at that. I guess, hell, it must’ve been.”

“What are we going to do about the bodies, Vern?”

“Shit, I dunno. But I’m telling you straight out, Kenny. I ain’t going back inside that house. No, sir, not never.”

“We have to tell somebody. Do something,” Kenny said.

“I told you what I think. We’ll ride back t’ town. Tell the marshal there. The justice o’ the damn peace too. An’ the doc. Prob’ly make him puke too when he sees what’s in there. That fancy college Doc went to the war, I bet he didn’t see the like of this in none of that shit.” Vernon shook his head. “Jesus God, Kenny. Jesus God!”

“I guess we ought to, I don’t know, shut the door at least. Keep the coyotes out and all them.”

“If you know a way to keep the stinking flies out, it’d be a blessing, you know that? Some of them flies crawled on me when we was in there, Kenny. Makes me feel like they was rubbing some of that shit on me. You know what I mean?” The thought made Vernon’s gorge rise again and he once more doubled over in an attempt to empty an already vacant stomach.

His friend Kenny quietly walked around to the front of the sod house and pushed the door closed. The latch was broken—there must have been a struggle—so he used Margaret’s churn to prop the door closed. It was the best he could do at the moment. And like Vernon, Kenny had no intention of going inside that place again. In his mind’s eye he could still see the ugliness within. For the rest of his life he would still see that, he suspected.

Kenny fetched their horses from the rickety corral that Will Howard had built and tried to lead them over to Vernon, but neither horse was willing to go near. Most likely they could smell the blood. Horses generally will shy from the scent of blood.

“Come on, Vern. Quit your puking and mount up. We got to go tell somebody about this.”

Chapter 1

Laura Hannigan felt a flutter of excitement. There was a man, a stranger, talking with Jim. They stood beside the barn, shielded from the ever-present wind. It was nigh onto suppertime and Laura considered whether she had time enough to freshen up and change into a nicer dress. Something with the color in the material not quite so washed out and…oh, good heavens, this old thing had a patch on the pocket. She could not allow the gentleman—and from the way he was dressed, this man was a very fine gentleman—she could not possibly allow him to see her like this.

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Western Wednesdays—RIDE FOR RULE CORDELL by Cotton Smith

It’s not often you come across a female antagonist in Westerns, but Cotton Smith’s villainous Lady Holt in Ride for Rule Cordell is a triple threat—she’s smart, mean, and ambitious to the point that she’s just about got the whole of Texas under her greedy thumb. Only the Texas Rangers stand in her way, and they’ll have to form an unlikely alliance with a notorious outlaw if they’re to break Lady Holt’s stranglehold on the great state and its people. Get in on the action with this preview of Ride for Rule Cordell by Cotton Smith.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Texas Ranger John Checker saw the two gunmen coming in the darkness before they saw him. Like a cat, he dove toward the short buffalo grass pushing against the right side of the ranch shed. He rolled until he was lying chest-down in a shallow creek fifteen feet away. His long black hair brushed along the shoulders of his Comanche tunic.

Moonlight shivered on the dark water that fed upon most of his pants. He laid his Winchester against the edge of the creek itself. Hidden from the gunmen until they got close. Swiftly, he lifted the thong from the hammer of his short-barreled Colt carried in a reverse holster on a double-rowed cartridge belt. His hand gripped the black handles, carrying an embedded elk-bone circle on each side, and drew the fine revolver.

If they saw him, the short gun would be faster to bring into action. He froze in place as they came closer. He was certain they hadn’t seen him. A shooting encounter now might prove fatal for his old friend, Emmett Gardner. The smarter move was to determine what exactly was going on and where.

He and fellow Ranger A. J. Bartlett had come as soon as they received the wire from the gray-haired rancher. The two Rangers had hit town and learned from a loose-lipped cowboy that Lady Holt riders would descend on Gardner’s ranch tonight. They stayed only long enough to get fresh horses.

Right now, Bartlet twas somewhere on the other side of the ranch yard, waiting for Checker’s signal to close in. If he wasn’t fussing with his new socks; things like that mattered greatly to his partner. He even kept a detailed journal of recipes of meals that could be prepared on the trail. Probably the result of growing up with schoolteacher parents.

So far, there had been no shooting. Most likely, this meant the old rancher and his sons had been surprised and subdued. Or it could signify something worse. A lone light in the ranch  house gave no clue to what was happening inside, but Checker thought it was encouraging. He wasn’t certain how many gunmen were at the ranch, but guessed it was ten to twelve. Bartlett was uncomfortable with any estimate, especially one like that; Checker reminded him they wouldn’t know for certain until the attack was over.

The two gunmen finally stopped and stood above him on the grassy bank. Their rifles were carried casually in crossed arms. Both were looking back toward the ranch  house. It appeared their only objective was to stay out of the way of others.

Checker dared not lift his head enough to see them any better. He had learned well from Stands-In-Thunder how a man could remain unseen by his enemies when actually in plain sight. No movement was the first requirement.

Courage was the second.

Third was to avoid staring directly at the person; such eye contact would often make the man realize he was being watched.

Ranger reports indicated Lady Holt had forty gunmen in her employ, including the notorious Tapan Moore and the half-breed Luke Dimitry. Were they all  here? He didn’t think anything near that, but  wasn’t certain. So far, his first guess of ten to twelve seemed right. Forty gunmen didn’t count all the regular cowboys who handled her vast herds. There was little in this part of Texas the English woman didn’t own—or control. There was talk of her employing the new devil’s rope to stop open grazing. Barbed wire would change everything, most agreed—and few liked the idea.

The two gunmen’s conversation was casual in the tense darkness.

“Looks like the ol’ lady’s gonna get her wish.Gardner’s spread’ll make it just about complete. The ol’ man’s got some fine water. Grazin’ land ain’t bad, neither. Sil said he’s gonna make him sign over his place—or start hangin’ his sons.”

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Western Wednesdays—NOT A RUSTLER by John D. Nesbitt

I’ll make this short and sweet since I hope everyone is on their way to visiting family and friends, or preparing to host the main event themselves. Either way, may this holiday weekend be filled with those you love and good food. Take a breather from packing or cooking and enjoy this preview of Not a Rustler by John D. Nesbitt, a story of a working ranch man falsely accused of being a rustler. Will the conspiracy be uncovered before it buries him? Find out!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

CHAPTER ONE

Spencer Prescott reined his horse to a stop when he saw a rider come over a hill on the trail ahead. The man was leaning forward and had his horse let out at a gallop, leaving a low cloud of dust in his wake.

Spencer moved his horse off to the side of the trail and waited. The oncoming horse was a common-looking sorrel, rigged for ranch work, and the man aboard, in addition to his intent posture, had the appearance of a seasoned range rider. His clothes were dusty, creased, and worn-looking in the sun.

As the man brought the horse to a jolting halt, Spencer recognized the upturned hat brim, the blond mustache, and the hard cheekbones of Kent Anderson, one of the men who rode for George Farrow. The rider worked his reins to each side as the horse, heaving deep breaths, shifted its feet and settled down.

“What news?” called Spencer.

“Nothing good.” Sunk into the flushed, sun-weathered face, the man’s blue eyes showed alarm. His chest moved up and down. “Someone’s killed the boss,” he announced.

Spencer felt his pulse jump. “When did that happen?”

Anderson’s voice quavered. “This morning, it looks like. He sent us hands out to gather horses. We left at first daylight and come back about noon. Looked like he’d been dead a few hours.”

“Right there at the ranch?”

“As he stepped out the front door. Hadn’t even pulled it shut.”

Spencer shook his head, slow and thoughtful. “That doesn’t sound good at all. Any idea who might have done it?”

Anderson gave a hard stare, and his eyes showed bloodshot. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He paused, as if to let the comment sink in. Then he went on to say, “You know as well as I do that anyone who isn’t part of the Association gets called a rustler and is liable to show up on a list somewhere.”

Spencer thought it sounded like an exaggeration, but he said, “I’m sorry for that.”

The upturned brim and the drooping blond mustache moved back and forth in an agitated motion, and Spencer couldn’t tell if it was from anger or fear.

With another heave of the chest, Anderson spoke. “Nothing personal to you, Spence. You ride for wages just like I do. But you know damn well, what they do to one man, they can do to another. Brand him a rustler, and take it from there. Now, you, you work for a member, so you’re on the safe side. For right now.”

Spencer frowned. “You think it would come around to me?”

“Oh, hell, who knows? I was thinkin’ of myself and the other two boys. If the big cattlemen put it out that George was rustlin’, then it’s a short step from there to say that the men who ride for him are doin’ the same thing. And it could happen to anyone, if the big shots had a mind to do it.”

“Well, I sure don’t have a part in it.”

“Oh, I didn’t think you did, or I wouldn’t have said this much.”

Spencer nodded and said nothing.

Anderson lifted his rein hand from the saddle horn. Worry showed in the blue eyes now. “Well, I’ve got to get along. I don’t like to be the one to do it, but someone’s got to carry the news to town.”

“Good luck.” Spencer raised his hand in farewell.

“Same to you.” The upturned brim leaned forward as the rider touched a spur to the horse’s flank, and the sorrel with three white stockings moved out in a rising trail of dust.

Spencer shifted in the saddle and nudged his horse forward. The dun stepped into a fast walk, and as Spencer settled into the rhythm, rocking in the smooth leather of the saddle, he went back through the news he had just heard. George Farrow was dead, shot down in his own ranch yard. Spencer recalled an image of Farrow—a quiet, dark-featured man with deep-set eyes and a bushy mustache. Now he was lying on his back, his eyes closed forever. His men would have taken him inside and laid him out with his hands folded on his chest, with his hat on a chair nearby.

Spencer brushed away some of the dust that had settled on his eyelids and cheekbones. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back, the energy of springtime as the grass was growing out and life was coming back to the rangeland. Raising his eyes to scan the country around him, he took a long breath and thought about the man who would not be able to see it anymore.

It was a bad way to go, even if Farrow had branded a few slick calves, which he might have done. Turnabout was supposed to be fair play, at least when it came to branding strays. The way Spencer had seen things in the last few years, everyone lost a few and picked up a few, and so it all came out even. That was the way things went on the open range. But now the men who ran the Association wanted to do things their way, and their way only. Cattlemen whose men mavericked through the winter, as Spencer had done for five dollars a head, wanted to outlaw anyone who didn’t participate in the Association’s roundups. Even a man who was branding his own stock could be called a rustler, while the Association kept all the mavericks in their gather so they could divvy up the proceeds among themselves.

Spencer tried not to concern himself with things that went on in higher-up places. A man who worked for a living liked to think that the man he rode for was on the square. As for branding stray calves or killing a steer that had wandered too far from its own range, those seemed to be common practice. Al Jerome had never asked his men to change a brand or slaughter someone else’s beef for sale. He had just followed the custom of the country. If he was a member of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, as he was, that was his business, and it helped protect his interests. As Spencer saw it, the bigwig politics didn’t reach down to the cowhand’s level. Besides, a man needed to work somewhere, and most of the good work was with men like Al Jerome.

Meanwhile, George Farrow was dead, shot down, and his hired man Anderson blamed the big ranchers. He made a point of saying he didn’t hold it against another ranch hand, but Spencer was left feeling uneasy. He felt the man’s bitterness, and he knew how the elite cattlemen hung together. Still, he was not going to jump to conclusions. He was in a position to stay calm and keep his eyes and ears open. Then, if he didn’t like the look of things, he could ease out and go look for work somewhere else.

Spencer had another fleeting image of George Farrow laid out, eyes closed, hatless, his weathered complexion fading into the pale forehead and tousled hair. He would never again see this greening rangeland, never again feel the warmth of the sun as the country came out of winter. Anderson said it could happen to anyone.

He also said Spencer’s guess was as good as his, and he didn’t mean all guesses were possible. It was clear that he meant there was one good guess if a man chose not to ignore it.

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Sexy Snippet: THE RUBY KISS

It all started with a magic knot, a mystical ring that contains the essence of its owner’s body, mind and spirit, an item capable of bonding two souls as one.

In The Ruby Kiss, the 3rd title in Helen Scott Taylor’s award-winning Magic Knot Fairies series, the fairy courts are off-balance, and only the fated bond between a powerful nightstalker and a fiery mortal can make things right.

Read on for a steamy glimpse into the magnetic relationship between Nightshade and Ruby, guaranteed to leave you wanting more—but don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long. The Ruby Kiss comes out later this month!

Warning: this sexy snippet is for mature readers only!

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Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW TRAIN by Cameron Judd

Outlaws, fugitives, rustlers, bank robbers, and all other villainous, adventuring characters roll through the small towns of the Old West in nearly every Western. But it’s not every day you encounter a Middle Eastern carnival—a travelling show full of the strange and unusual as well as the mythic and legendary—come to town in old time Kentucky.  Cameron Judd challenges the rough and tumble cowboys of the Old West with just such an outfit, led by a showman whose true ends are veiled by the stagecraft he orchestrates in Outlaw Train, an awe-inspiring Western blended with exotic mystery.

And what Judd does so well in this prologue is to provide the calm before the storm, to portray the mundane details of a mundane meal at the local saloon, with patrons harping about nothing in particular, taking for granted these peaceful days of their lives. And then, enter Professor Percival Raintree and his outlaw train…

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

PROLOGUE

Bug Otis looked past Ben Keely toward an obese man who sat in the far corner sloppily eating from a bowl of potatoes, beef, carrots, and onions. “Dry stew,” the proprietor of the place called that particular dish, the specialty of this dank and dirty dining establishment in the backwoods of western Kentucky. Most days, including this one, it was the only dish served.

Bug, a very skinny man with leathery, furrowed skin and bulging eyes that accounted for his nickname, swiped a filthy sleeve across his mouth and sighed.

“Lordy, Lordy,” he said. “I’m just like my old daddy, I reckon.”

“How so, Bug?” Keely asked. “I remember your father well, and you ain’t like him at all. You’re your mother all over again.”

“Yeah, but my old daddy, he always said it made him hungry to watch a fat man eat. And I’m the same way.”

Keely looked back over his shoulder toward the man Otis was watching. He turned back again, amazed and repelled. “Bug, are you trying to tell me it makes you hungry to watch that big old boar back there slopping himself?”

Bug frowned. “Well … yeah. Don’t it you?”

“You’re a sick man, Bug. Sick in the mind. Loco, as the Mexicans say it.” Keely tapped a finger against his temple.

Bug looked annoyed. “We’re all different, I reckon, but that don’t mean I’m crazy. Hell, Ben, me and you been different since we was boys.”

Ben Keely took a bite of corn bread and didn’t reply. But Bug was right. Ben always had been different from not only Bug, but most of the folks he’d grown up among. Didn’t think like them, act like them, want to be part of them for longer than he had to. Which, he supposed, was part of what had driven him away from home so early. He’d gone west when he left Kentucky, because that was the direction a man went in the post–Civil War United States of America if he wanted to get to something new and better and bigger. Always west. Ben had crossed the Mississippi with no firm plan to ever make a return trip. And until the death of his father two weeks back, he’d not done so. Once free of Kentucky, he’d settled and stayed in the little town of Wiles, Kansas, hiring on as town marshal (nobody else had wanted the job, and he’d been willing to lie about his credentials) and trying to forget his past.

Not that he’d had a bad life growing up. Good parents, intelligent, his father a schoolmaster and devotee of history, his mother educated as well. They’d raised him and his sister, Bess, with a respect for learning, a tolerance for difference, and a belief that they could rise above their narrow little backwoods world. The world is big, Ben’s father used to tell his children. Don’t let anybody keep you small in a world this big.

Ben had left home at age seventeen, hoping that big world his father talked about really was out there, and had wandered about for years looking for it. Sometimes he believed he’d found it, but most times had to admit that life as a town marshal in a little railroad stop Kansas town was not much bigger or better than the life he’d left behind in Kentucky. A more open landscape, certainly, a broader view and more distant horizon … but the world right at hand, the streets he trod while making his rounds, the saloons he dragged rowdy drunks from, and the simple little jailhouse where he kept his meager office and locked up his prisoners, these were as small and strangling as anything he’d left behind in Kentucky.

Ben was distressed when he pondered that he was living a mostly solitary life at a time when his youth was beginning to pass away. Before he knew it, he’d be halfway through his thirties, still unmarried, still tied down to an unproductive and unpromising job he’d intended to keep only for months, not years.

Ben refocused his attention on his food, trying not to hear the disgusting mashing and gulping noises made by the obese eater in the corner. For his part, Bug couldn’t resist staring hungrily at the hideous spectacle. Each round of observation brought him back to his own bowl of beef, potatoes, and onions with invigorated appetite.

Ben picked at his food and tried not to feel queasy.

Bug finished his victuals, wiped his forefinger around the bowl, and noisily sucked the finger clean. With that, Ben’s appetite died fully and he simply stared into the remnants of his food.

“You ain’t going to finish that?” Bug asked.

Ben shoved his bowl across the table. Bug’s eyes were all but bulging out of his skull. “You letting me have this?”

“Enjoy it, Bug. I’ve had my fill.”

At that moment the outer door opened, spilling murky sunlight into the dim interior of the log building from the drizzly, gray day outside. The muted backlighting allowed Ben a relatively clear view of the unusual man who entered.

He was clad in loose brown trousers that were tucked into high boots. Not the cattleman’s boots Ben saw so frequently in Kansas, but moccasin-styled boots that were strapped to the calves, nearly to his knees, canvas trouser legs plunging into them. His shirt was big and loose and made out of highly worked supple leather, styled like an old hunting shirt. The man’s face was smoothly shaven and had an olive tone that might have been Indian, Egyptian, or Mediterranean. Hard to judge in the light.

Oddest of all, the man wore a turban. Ben had seen pictures of turbans before in some of his father’s history and geography books that showed images from the Far East and the biblical lands, and he knew similar headgear had been worn by Indians in the region years earlier, and in times past by older slaves farther south. Ben did not know which kind of turban he was seeing here. Whatever it was, it was nothing he would have expected to encounter in rural Kentucky.

Bug noticed Ben’s distraction and turned to investigate. He gave a soft grunt. “Huh! Man’s got a rag tied around his head! And look there at his ears.”

Bug had noticed something Ben had missed. The edges of the stranger’s ears were discolored … blue. Tatooed, Ben decided. But the door closed, the light became as dim as before, and he couldn’t see clearly enough to verify it.

“Wonder who that is?” Bug said a little too loudly. Ben wished he hadn’t. He had an inexplicable bad feeling about the new arrival and didn’t want to draw his attention. Too late. The stranger heard Bug and looked in their direction.

But he didn’t approach. He found a table close to the door and sat down. Mutton Smith, who ran this establishment, came around and informed the stranger that the only item on the menu today was dry stew, but by gum, if you had dry stew available, what else could you want anyway? The man nodded to confirm his order. One more dry stew coming up.

At that moment, Bug stretched his legs and accidentally kicked over a closed crockery jar that sat under the table near Ben’s feet. It clunked and rolled. Ben bent to the side and quickly grabbed it, setting it on the tabletop.

“I be damned, Ben!” Bug exclaimed loudly, staring at the jar. “That’s the Harpe head jar, ain’t it! I didn’t know you had brung that with you!”

At Bug’s words, the man in the turban suddenly turned his full attention toward Ben and Bug’s table.

“Ain’t no call to tell the whole world about it, Bug,” Ben said, noticing and not liking the stare he was getting from the turbaned man. Something unnerving in it. “Keep your voice down, would you?”

Bug answered as loudly as before. “Hell, Ben, that there jar of bone ain’t no secret around here! Everybody knows that the Keely family has Harpe’s head! That’s been printed in newspapers before! I ain’t saying nothing everybody don’t already know.”

The man in the turban rose and walked toward their table. Ben tensed and put his hand on the jar, at which the man’s dark eyes were staring. It roused in Ben a strangely intense protectiveness toward his possession. This was a family heirloom, something his father had prized for its historical value and closely guarded all his life. The contents of the jar were unique and irreplaceable, and if they had no inherent monetary value, they were of value as a relic.

The turbaned man reached the table. Ben and Bug looked up at him, silent and unwelcoming. Bug studied the newcomer as if he were an oddity, a man with three heads or four eyes.

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Western Wednesdays—STRANGER IN THUNDER BASIN

The life-defining moment of a hero, the catalyst that molds the man and sets his life course, is never so powerful as when it manifests in childhood. His path inevitably becomes a tightrope, one precariously balanced upon through adolescence and into adulthood until fate, as she always will, tips the scales. Spur award-winning author John D. Nesbitt forges just such a character and just such a moment in this tension-fraught opening to Stranger in Thunder Basin. Can justice and vengeance cohabitate in a man’s heart? Will they destroy him or set him free? Find out in Stranger in Thunder Basin.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

From the beginning there rose a memory ancient as blood.

The long, cold wind had quit blowing, but the sun was still shut out. Under a gray sky, the dunes of snow lay hard packed—domed and smooth on the windward side, ridged and sculpted on the leeward. The boy could walk up on top of a drift and, it seemed to him, stand in the sky. When Pa-Pa stood on the next drift over, he looked taller than ever.

All morning, Pa-Pa dug walkways from the cabin, first to the outhouse and then to the barn. Pa-Pa worked with a steady motion, carving out snow and tossing it to one side or the other. Orly the dog watched, looked up at Eddie. Pa-Pa was quiet, no sound but the slice of the shovel and the thump of the snow when it landed. At one point on the way to the barn, the passageway was higher than Eddie’s cap.

Pa-Pa worked on. When he cleared the door of the barn, Eddie and the dog followed him inside. The air was as thin and cold as outside. The horses whoofed and snuffled. Pa-Pa gave them grain from a burlap sack, hard pale sliding seeds that he called oats.

Pa-Pa carried the round-headed shovel and the square one. Eddie walked beside him, and Orly trotted ahead. A big drift lay across the road. Pa-Pa said he was going to have to clear it out before they could go anywhere. He started digging, first with the square shovel and then with the round one. He began on the right and worked across, then went to his right again and cut deeper into the drift, carving out slabs of solid white cake. As loose snow gathered at his feet, he scooped it up and tossed it as well.

Now with his shovel he held a big square piece in front of Eddie’s eyes. It was cleaner than lard, cleaner than the whitest ice cream. Then he tossed it, and it fell apart when it landed.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I throw it all to the right side here.”

Eddie looked at him without saying anything.

“Well, I don’t want the wind to blow it back in. If I throw it to the left and a big wind comes, all the loose and crumbly stuff’ll fill in, and I’ll have to come back tomorrow and do the same thing.”

He stabbed the shovel in the snowbank and took a deep breath, then opened and closed his hands. The creased leather gloves looked like part of him, as did the canvas coat and the sweat-lined hat. Pa-Pa, solid and tall against a gray sky, his weathered face like deer hide, his silvery hair flowing to cover his ears and touch his collar. He took another breath and went back to work.

Eddie rolled in the loose snow, tumbling with Orly and teasing him. Above, the gray sky went everywhere, and Eddie could not tell where the sky ended and the world began. Here below, his coat was a dull black, and his mittens, itchy as the coat, were dark gray. Orly was black and white, but the white was almost yellow compared with the snow.

“Here,” came Pa-Pa’s voice. “Stand up. You’re gettin’ too much snow on you.”

Eddie felt himself being pulled up in the scratchy coat. Pa-Pa took off the stocking cap, shook it out, then pressed it back over Eddie’s ears. With his leather gloves, he brushed the dry snow off the boy’s coat, turning him one way and the other. Eddie felt snow melting on the back of his neck, then a relaxing of the coat.

“I wonder who this is.” Pa-Pa’s hands let go.

Across the top of the snowdrift Eddie could see a man on a horse—a dark, narrow shape against the bleak background. Pa-Pa held the shovel at rest and watched the rider come closer. Sound carried as the horse’s hooves rose from the snow and punched in again.

The stranger came to a stop on the other side of the drift. Both horse and rider loomed dark. Wisps of steam floated from the animal’s nose and mouth. The horse’s body carried a dull color between black and dark brown. A lighter brown showed along the edges of the nose, the forehead, and the ears, while the mane and tail ran to pure black. The rider wore a flat-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat, dull with old dust. He had a narrow face with a long, thin nose; a pair of beady, close-set eyes; and thin lips. The lower part of his face, tapered, lay in shadow-like stubble, and a dark neckerchief covered his throat. He wore a scratchy-looking coat the color of a burned-out fire log.

Pa-Pa’s voice came out in the cold air. “What can I do for you?”

The thin lips moved. “I’m lookin’ for Jake Bishop.”

“That’s me.”

The stranger cast his beady glance at Eddie, then back at Pa-Pa. “Need to talk to you. Just you and me.”

“The kid’s no harm.”

“Little pitchers have big ears.”

“I said he’s no harm. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

The stranger came off his horse, slow and stiff-like. When he turned around, he had his coat unbuttoned and his gloves in his left hand. “I’ve got a message. Not for the ears of little boys.” With his right hand he touched the hem of his coat.

Pa-Pa turned to look at Eddie. “Here, sonny,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket and bringing out a piece of pale, hard candy. “Take this, and go get me the hatchet I use to split kindling.”

Eddie looked up into his face and saw nothing to understand.

“Here, take it, and go get me the hatchet.”

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Sneak Peek—Pinborough’s BREEDING GROUND

Hi All,

It’s the last full week of Ah!-Tober, and I like to think that we saved the best for last! Author Bill Vaughan once said, We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.” If creepy crawlies creep you out, then have I got the book for you… and you’ll just have to keep reading to find out if the spiders are grateful.  The larger-than-life, intelligent, pseudo-psychic spiders in Sarah Pinborough‘s Breeding Ground truly epitomize my greatest fears about bugs! Pinborough creates an atmosphere perfect for hostile takeover. So it’s my #1 must-read for Halloween! Read on… if you dare!  Tune in tomorrow, as we have a great interview with Sarah, and we’ll be giving away a copy of Breeding Ground to one lucky commenter!

PROLOGUE

I wish I could tell you that I saw lights in the sky. Or shooting stars that turned out to be alien spaceships falling to earth. That’s how Armageddon stories normally start, isn’t it? Some great portent signaling the oncoming doom, some clue that They have done this to us, whether the guilty party are the Russian They, the American They, the British They, or the all-time favourite, the They from outer space.

I don’t know why it started. I don’t know if it was the work of the government, a visit from space or an act of God. If I had to put money on it, I’d pick the first option; after all, they never stop adding chemicals to food and there was always going to be payback. But at the end of the day, I don’t know why it started, and even if I did it wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference now, would it?

My name is Matthew Edge, and at some point last year, the end of the world as we know it started. And I figure my version of events is going to be as clear a record as anyone’s, so here goes. I hope that you’ll read this through to the end. I hope there’s a you out there to read it, and hell, I hope that I’m still alive when you finish, and I hope I get to shake your hand adult to adult, once you’re born and grown into a person of this new world. Hope is all we have, after all, isn’t it? Some things will never change.

CHAPTER ONE

“I can’t believe it! I’ve put on three pounds!”

When Chloe called out from the bathroom I was still in bed, lazily enjoying the extra half an hour I had left before work pulled me into the outside world. I grinned at her indignant exclamation. She was hardly what anyone would call fat. Huffing, she padded back into our bedroom, dressed in only her knickers. She looked perfect to me, all slim curves and soft skin. Pulling the pillow next to me under my chin, I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no, not a whole three pounds.”

She flashed her dark eyes. “You’re not funny, you know, Matt.” A familiar twitch in her chin betrayed her humour. “That’s five pounds I’ve put on in two weeks. God, at this rate not even my underwear will fit me in a month.”

“Now that’s a thought.” And it really was an image that sent tingles down my spine. We’d been together for five years, outlasting all our friends’ twentysomething relationships, and at the ripe old age of twenty-nine the sight of her naked body was still a glorious thing to me. To most men, I’d reckon. She was way too good for me, but until she noticed I had no intention of telling her. I ran my eyes over her. “Hmmm. I can just imagine you in a nice executive business suit with nothing on underneath. Except perhaps hold-ups.”

A flying bra hit me in the face. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”

“I try not to. I am a man, after all.”

She tucked her blouse into her skirt and smiled. “You certainly are. You’re my man.”

“Come here and give me a kiss, then.”

She perched on the bed and I pulled her forward, ignoring her shriek and then giggle of protest as I rolled her underneath me. Her skin was glowing and as yet free of makeup. She looked gorgeous, smiling up at me with all that love, her hair spread out beneath us on the rumpled bedding, and my heart tightened.

“I love you, Chloe Taylor.”

She touched my face. “I love you too, Matt.”

I kissed her and she kissed me back, our tongues meeting, mine no doubt tasting of sleep and hers of toothpaste, but still within a second or two I could feel myself hardening. Still exploring each other’s mouths as if they were new territory, I tugged at her blouse, needing to feel her naked skin.

“What are you doing? I’ve got to get to work. I’ll be late.” Panting the words, she made an attempt to wriggle free, but it was only halfhearted.

Her shirt undone, I kissed her slim stomach, mumbling my reply. “Yeah, but I won’t. And anyway, I’m thinking of you. What better way to work off those extra pounds?”

“Bastard.”

We smiled through our kisses and then made love.  To my hands and touch there was no sign of any extra weight, not that I’d have cared. Not then. It was beautiful. I got to work five minutes late and she must have been half an hour behind time, but I’ll tell you one thing: we were both smiling on arrival.

Often at night, that flash of memory still runs through my head, painful and sharp. I don’t mind, though. I think it’s important to try and remember Chloe like that. Like she really was. Before everything that came after. Yeah, for others it may have started earlier, but for me that day signaled the beginning of the end. I digress.

Back then, all fourteen months ago, when work and money were what counted in the world, I was a mortgage advisor for a small estate agency on Stony Stratford High Street. It was family-owned, which was its saving grace, and although I’d started out selling houses, Mr. Brown had soon seen that I’d want to move on and he pushed me to learn about mortgages and take over that side of the business. Seems funny to think about now, all that time sitting behind a desk calculating figures to see what people could afford, not ever suspecting that none of those loans would be getting paid back in full, and in the future that was fast approaching, there wouldn’t be any banks left that would care.

The job paid quite well, I didn’t have to travel far and I was content. I’d worked there since I was twenty-two, and although I occasionally felt bored and restless, I wasn’t ambitious enough to move on. It was Chloe who had the big plans and dreams and the drive to fulfill them. She was already making a bit of a name for herself on the local legal circuit as a barrister to look out for, and her salary was more than double mine.

All that and six months younger than me, but I can honestly say I didn’t care. I was proud of her. I wanted her to be happy, and as far as I could tell her work and me did that for her, and that alone made me the luckiest man alive.

We lived in a renovated cottage at the top end of High Street, close enough to walk to all the restaurants and pubs the old coaching town had to offer without either of us having to drive. We would sip wine and beer and laugh together about the days behind and ahead. As lives go, it wasn’t a bad one. We had village life on the edge of a thriving new city, and London was only forty minutes away on a train, just in case we felt like trying to regain our early twenties. We were settled, and that may sound dull to some people, but then I suppose they never had the good luck to settle down with Chloe.

When I got in that evening at six, she was already home, sitting on our oversized, overindulgent sofa, her legs tucked under her, thick Mediterranean hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looked about sixteen, and that made the thoughts running through my head barely legal.

Undoing my tie and top button, I sat down at the other end. “Hey, gorgeous. You’re home early.”

Her eyes flicked momentarily at me and then back to the exposed brick wall above the fireplace. “I didn’t feel well. I came home early. I wasn’t in court this afternoon, so it didn’t really matter.”

She did look tired and pale, and I stroked her hair.

“You work too hard, babe. Why don’t I get you a glass of wine and run you a hot bath?”

“That won’t change it.” She let out a weary sigh. “I went to the doctor on my way home.”

Shuffling in closer, I felt the tension coming from her slim frame, and my heart tightened. Sometimes late at night, when she was sleeping curled up in the crook of my shoulder, I would quietly wonder when it was going to go wrong. It was too good, you see. She was too good for me, and what we had was too special. Maybe everyone in love feels like that, but when it’s a first love that lasts, you can’t help but wonder what may come along to destroy it. She’d been to the doctor. Doctors meant sickness. How ill was she? My mouth dried as a wave of suggested diseases flooded my brain.

“What’s the matter?”

She looked at me and sniffed, her brown eyes impenetrable. Her bottom lip quivered as she spoke.

“I’m pregnant.”

I’m pregnant. The world spun on its head for a moment, then froze as I tried to take it in. The words punching the air from my lungs, the best I could manage was a half-breathless laugh, my flesh tingling at every pore as I stared, no doubt with my mouth half-open and looking like a dribbling idiot, at her beautiful face.

“What?” At last I squeezed out a word. Not a particularly clever or appropriate one, but it was the best I could do, sitting there on the leather sofa, a month or so away from thirty and feeling like a big kid with my heart pounding too hard against my chest.

“I’m pregnant.” Tears welled up, threatening to spill onto her cheeks. “And scared.”

I could feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes, too, and as soon as I could get my body to do as I wanted I pulled her closer to me. “What are you scared for? You’re pregnant.” I paused for a moment, needing to say the words to make it real. “You’re pregnant.” Real was good.

The grin on my face stretched until it almost hurt.

“You’re going to have a baby.” I paused again. “We’re going to have a baby.” I laughed out loud. “We’re going to have a baby, Chloe.” The giggles wouldn’t stop and I sat there chortling to myself. “That’s fantastic!”

 

Staring at me, she pulled back slightly. “Are you sure about this? Are you sure you’re happy about it? I thought you might…well, I thought you might want me not to have it.”

For a moment, the fear crept back into my heart. I’d never really thought about children, not in any imminent way, but now that circumstances had overtaken planning I knew that I wanted this baby to come. It would cement everything that we had. But maybe she didn’t feel that way. After all, it was a bigger step for her. It was she who had the big career ahead of her.  Maybe she felt that her job was more important than a baby right now. The laughing stopped.

“Why? Don’t you want to keep it?”

She smiled hesitantly, flashing her perfect white teeth. “Yes, yes, of course I do, I was just worried you might think it was too soon, that we should be married or—”

My mouth silenced hers and we kissed until the gentleness turned to passion right there on the leather, our child only a few weeks old inside her, our perfect day ending as it had begun.

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