Here is a sneak peak at my latest release, That’s Amores. Enjoy!
Alessa Lombard lowered the crossbow into the display case;
her students’ voices echoed through the halls before fading away. For a moment, the songs of birds drifted indoors. Arriv- ing with them was the pungent smell of wet cobblestones. Clos- ing her eyes, she let the stillness fill her. She loved these mo- ments when the spring semester brimmed with hope and pos- sibility.
Behind her, soft-soled sandals snicked across the tiled floor. She stiffened. None of her students wore sandals to class, which could only mean someone from the council had come to harass her again. Her fingers tightened on the wooden stock before slipping to the lead-tipped bolt lying on the green velvet.
“You’re not wise to bring up my marital status when I’m surrounded by weapons.”
“I’d heard the Consiglio Comunale has been hounding you to put your name in the lottery this Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t believe it.” Lia Lombard Trancredo sighed.
Spinning, Alessa faced her adopted sister. Her shoulders relaxed. Not the council after all.
“You set a bad precedent by entering last year.”
Now, the city council had ordered all single women over twenty had to enter the love lottery. Suddenly, being single was a crime. Especially for a Lombard.
At thirty-one, she enjoyed her life as a spinster, and she planned to enjoy it a lot longer. A lifetime longer. She just needed to find a way around the council’s short-sighted ruling and keep her name out of that stupid lottery.
Alessa rolled her shoulders, breaking tension’s grip. Not that she’d even told her beloved sister about her plan.
“It turned out well.” Beaming, Lia patted her round belly, pressing against her green stola and matching tunica. Her very pregnant stomach smoothed the long front pleats of her dress. Peacock blue thread embroidered the neckline and hem, while matching gold butterfly fibulae clasped the emerald silk at her shoulders. With ringlets of brown hair cascading from the laurel wreath on her head, she was the epitome of fashion. First cen- tury ACE Roman fashion, that is. Perfect for a town locked in time to serve the deities of love, Cupid and Psyche.
Alessa plucked at her faded Cupid University T-shirt be- fore smoothing the pink fabric over her faded blue jeans. Ah, well, she wasn’t dealing with the tourists invading their quiet Tuscana village. She was teaching her students how to shoot love arrows at lonely hearts.
And speaking of the ever-present gods…
The fresco on the wall behind Lia shimmered, and Psyche stepped onto the balcony of her palace on the hilltop. Her blue- and-gold butterfly wings beat softly as she set her elbow on the railing and rested her chin on her palm. A chill snaked down Alessa’s spine. The gods were up to something—usually some- thing irritating to mortals.
She plucked at her shirt again. Given how Cupid and Psy- che had been staring at her lately, maybe she shouldn’t have worn a shirt with a bull’s-eye on the back.
Lia cleared her throat and caressed her belly again. “Don’t you think the lottery went well for me?”
Alessa jerked her attention from the goddess on the painted hill and focused on her sister.
“Yes, of course I do. You and Dante have loved each other since forever.”
That’s why their marriage worked. Well, that, and the gods had lent a hand by scooping the scrap of paper with Lia’s name on it out of the urn and plastering it against her future husband’s chest. Hard to miss those signs.
The love lottery was fine for everyone except her—her Lom- bard blood would taint any match made by the gods. She shut down the thought.
“You could have the same thing.” Lia smiled before care- fully lowering herself onto a seat behind a student’s marble desk. The oak chair creaked as it adjusted to her weight. “Love. A hus- band. Children.”
“Don’t start.” Blinking back tears, Alessa pushed away from the crossbow case and paced the marble floor. She could never have those things. Not without paying a horrible price. “The entire village of Amores has marriage fever—my mar- riage, not anyone else’s.” She milked her fingers before stomp- ing to the blackboard at the front of the rectangular room. “The Consiglio Comunale has even threatened my job here at the university.”
She slapped the eraser against the surface. A puff of chalk dust rose just as she inhaled; her eyes watered, and she coughed. Gods, she’d be so happy when the new computerized boards were installed.
“I thought the council only had authority over Amores and the surrounding farms, not the university,” Lia protested.
“Sindaco Mezzerti is of the opinion that unless he is ex- pressly forbidden from doing so by the Cupid charter the mayor has authority.” The fathead! She chucked the eraser onto the metal ledge under the blackboard. It bounced off, and a small white plume marked its landing on the floor.
“That’s certainly a turnaround from last year.” Wooden chair legs scraped the marble tile. “He couldn’t stop quoting it chap- ter and verse when he was trying to banish me.”
Stooping, Alessa scooped up the eraser and placed it on the chalk-dusted ledge.
“I think he wants me banished.”
Never to return. Gone. Her heart thumped hollowly in her chest. If she let it happen, she’d be disappointing hundreds of generations of Lombards. Yet, she’d also be free of living in a village of happily married people. Stop being the beloved aunt but never a mother. Maybe she’d even find warm arms to hold her on a winter’s night.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Psyche blowing bubbles from the frescoed balcony. The pink bubbles morphed into heart shapes bearing Alessa’s face paired with one of the men from the village.
She shuddered. Hades, the gods were targeting her. At least in the village she could see them before they struck. In the out- side world, she’d receive no such warning.
Then again, she might escape the Lombard family curse. Maybe leaving would be worth it. And she could have chil- dren. She did want bambinos. So much, at times, that she al- most regretted her decision to stay single.
“I doubt you’ll be banished.” Lia slipped off her sandals and propped her swollen feet on the chair she’d turned. Lean- ing forward as far as her belly allowed, she rubbed the red welts cutting her pale skin. “The Lombards are the original signers of the charter. I think it’s more likely the mayor wants you mar- ried and producing babies so the next generation of Lombards will be assured.”
If it was just a matter of producing babies, she could visit one of the sperm banks on the outside. With a turkey baster as a father, she wouldn’t have to worry about the curse. Wouldn’t that knot the city council’s togas in unpleasant places?
But it wouldn’t spare her children the Lombard curse. It had to end with her.
On the fresco, Psyche dropped her bottle of bubble soap. A red aura surrounded her lithe frame, and her butterfly wings snapped flat. Gods! She’d forgotten the goddess could hear her thoughts.
Psyche’s aura dimmed to pink.
Keeping her in sight, Alessa strode across the room to sit
on the chair beside her sister.
“They don’t need me for that. You’re already well on your way.”
Lia’s sigh swirled through her bangs.
“I’m not a Lombard by blood.”
The Consiglio Comunale did have a bloodline fetish. Still,
Zephyrus, the west wind, had rescued Lia from the crash that killed her biological parents then carried her to Amores. Alessa’s parents had planned to adopt the infant, but their fighting had delayed it again and again until they, too, had died.
She nudged Lia’s shoulder.
“You’re family in all the ways that matter.”
“So Dante tells me.” Lia rested her head on Alessa’s shoul-
der. “Of course, he also says I’ve inherited your stubbornness.” Soft hair tickled Alessa’s chin. Kissing her sister’s head,
she inhaled the strawberry scent of shampoo
“It’s nice that he’s still complimenting you after almost a year of marriage.”
Not having Lombard blood had spared Lia the family curse. “Alessa, can I ask you something without you getting angry?” Resting her hands on her belly, Lia picked at her glittery red nail polish.
“Why would I get angry?” Alessa watched Psyche fly off her balcony. The goddess flitted across the white plaster walls, ducking behind tapestries of famous hunters before leaping into the bust of herself by the blackboard. Her marble eyes blinked.
Alessa stared. Now what mischief was the goddess plan- ning?
When Lia tilted her head to glance up at Alessa, her laurel wreath dropped over her creased forehead.
“That’s not an answer.”
Psyche’s lips thinned before they pursed. Stone grated as the bust turned to face the blackboard. A moment later, the god- dess emerged, delineated in smudged chalk. Butterfly wings fluttered, dusting the floor. She smiled as her outline grew larger. Finally, her feet rested on the bottom of the board and her curly hair brushed the top.
In mystery novels, chalk outlines signaled dead bodies. Unfortunately, gods were immortal. Not that Alessa wanted an end to love. Love was a marvelous thing. But passionate love was better for other people.
Psyche conjured a bow and arrow from the chalk dust. Poor choice of words.
“Did you stay single because of me?”
What? Alessa blinked before focusing on her sister. Gods,
please tell me the council isn’t using my sister to get to me.
Lia brushed glittering crimson flakes off her belly.
“I mean, you raised me when you should have been out looking for your mate.”
“No!” Alessa’s shout bounced back at her, and she winced.
Great, now nosey Diana Grimor will come to investi- gate.
The councilwoman already stopped by daily to inquire about Alessa’s Valentine’s Day plans.
Psyche smiled from the blackboard as red chalk hearts frothed around her.
A heart-shaped slide show of every eligible bachelor in Amores was a treat compared to a visit from Diana.
“I’m single because I’ve never met the right man.” And, please, gods, I hope I never do. “It has nothing to do with you. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
Especially the Consiglio Comunale, image-conscious fools that they were.
Bracing her hands on the chair’s arms, Lia hoisted herself into a more vertical position and twisted to face Alessa.
“When I was little, you were always dating the handsom- est boys. They’d arrive with flowers and chocolates. Sometimes, they’d slip me one or two while Papa was interrogating them or Momma was fussing over you.
“Then, when Momma and Papa died, no one came over anymore. The flowers and candy just disappeared.”
Thank gods that was all her sister remembered. Not their parents’ constant fighting, Momma’s screeching accusations of infidelity, and Papa’s violent jealousy.
“You have nothing to do with my single state.”
But raising Lia had provided an excuse to stop pretending even to look for love. Too bad the fear she’d find it lay in her heart like Mount Etna, waiting for a chance to erupt and destroy her.
Alessa eyed Psyche, who studied her chalk fingernails.
“I didn’t think so, but…” Lia’s smile wobbled a second before sticking to her lips.
“But a thirty-one-year-old single woman in Amores is an abomination.”
Only widows and widowers were allowed to remain alone, the lucky ducks. To be unmarried in a town built on the notion of passionate love looked bad in the brochures. To be so and teach the Bow’s Arts at the very institute that spread that love throughout the world no doubt caused landslides on Mount Olympus.
“You’re certainly a rarity.” Lowering her feet to the floor, Lia peered around her belly and fished for her sandals.
“According to Sindaco Mezzerti, I’m singlehandedly de- stroying the mythos that is Amores. He claims that Cupid and Psyche have disappeared from the council’s chambers entirely.” Obviously, the mayor needed to visit the university more of- ten. The two gods were here every day. Even their daughter, Voluptas, flew through the halls once a week.
Psyche clasped a hand over her mouth, but her crinkled eyes told the story of her mirth.
“Do you think the gods are behind this sudden pressure to have you married?”
“The gods are always up to something. But no, the council has been after me to enter the drawing since I was twenty- five.” Alessa bit the inside of her cheek before saying anything the gods could construe as a challenge. “You actually gave me time to find someone.”
Not that she had looked, precisely.
She dropped to the floor and gently slid Lia’s sandals on her swollen feet then loosely tied the leather straps around her sister’s ankles. She leaned forward so a curtain of dark hair hid her face. Sometimes her sister saw too much.
“So, what are you going to do to avoid the spinster law?”
“I’ve got a plan.” One that would buy her time to think of a permanent solution.
A peek at the blackboard showed empty white smudges. The goddess had gone, and the tightness in Alessa’s chest eased. What the gods didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
“The council actually gave me the idea.”
“Really?” Lia held out one hand and braced the other against the arm of the chair. “What is it?”
Standing, Alessa clasped her sister’s wrist. Soft, warm skin gave under her touch. At a nod from Lia, she took a deep breath and heaved. The strain burned up her back, but Lia made it up.
“You know that Signor Cerelia, the accounting professor, retired, right? Well, the university board has selected another gentleman to take his place for the rest of the year while they work through the hiring process.”
“How does that help?” Lia’s brow furrowed.
“This is the busiest time of the year.” Alessa felt the grin consume her face. It was truly a perfect plan. And given the coun- cil’s harassment, she had been afraid to share it. “You know that all the hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are full, so…” She paused savoring her victory—the rum in the tiramisu. “So, I offered the new professor a room in Lombard house. He’s going to stay with me.”
“I don’t understand.” Releasing her grip, Lia shook out the folds of her green stola.
“The Consiglio Comunale won’t dare mention their shame, also known as my single state, in front of an outsider.”
The gods would surely fall off Mount Olympus at the hor- ror. For once, the council’s archaic manners would work against them. Alessa rubbed her hands together.
“But if he’s an outsider, how will he stay once Amores disappears after the end of the month?”
Normally, the village and every citizen in it were cloaked by magic after February, leaving outsiders with vague notions and fuzzy recollections about the place and its location. In order for the school board to give themselves time, they’d found a loophole in the rule. One that benefitted her as well.
Alessa did a quick survey of the walls. No Psyche. Some- thing else was going her way.
“The new professor is from another magic town. One de- voted to Christmas.” She bounced on her heels before striding to her desk. Really, it couldn’t be more perfect.
Love for one another, not passionate love, the lucky dog. He probably didn’t have pressure to marry, nor was he likely to know about curses—just good will and generosity. She raked her hair in a ponytail and bound it with a clip off her desk. Maybe she should ask for a transfer to the Christmas village. Of course, Santa and his elves weren’t likely to want someone with bows and arrows around their reindeer.
“Why is he coming here?” Lia rubbed her lower spine.
“Rumor has it he broke off an engagement.” Perhaps he’d been so badly burned he’d be an ally against the passionate- love brigade.
She grabbed up a handful of papers and tapped the edges against her desk until they were ordered. Humor effervesced through her. Not that she wanted anyone to be unhappy, but it would be nice to have someone else who didn’t think passion was the a and zeta of love.
Lia swayed before propping herself against the teacher’s desk.
“And the Consiglio Comunale let him come to Amores to teach?”
“I know.” Alessa choked on her chuckle. Good gods, what if the board had really hired him so he could find true love? Then…
Heat flooded her cheeks. Then, she hadn’t taken advan- tage of the board’s decision; she’d been tricked by them. The notion chased itself around in her head until nausea roared at the back of her throat. Dropping the papers, she braced both hands on her desk to steady herself.
No, they wouldn’t have done that. The scandal had rocked the school, and there’d been a few hastily called council meet- ings after the news broke. She set her hand on her chest and waited for her heart to resumé a more stately rhythm.
“And it isn’t even his first broken engagement. Supposedly, there’ve been three others that ended badly.”
Sighing, she scooped up the papers and stuffed them into her leather satchel. The students she taught did a good service for humanity. She just didn’t want any part of it. Was that so wrong?
“Four broken engagements? Gods! Does he know Amores is the center of love?”
“He does.” Alessa bit her lip while buckling her bag. His reasons for coming were the sole sticky spot in her plans. “He says he needs to come here and find his faith in love. Diana Grimor is looking forward to helping him.” The cow!
She jerked her bag off the desk, felt the heavy tug on her arm. Widow Grimor liked the company of men, preferably naked men. Not that Alessa was a prude. She just wanted to make sure the new professor was around to provide a buffer between her and the matchmakers, not off being seduced by amorous widows.
“It’s sad how the death of a mate turns some people’s love into hedonism.” Lia waddled around the desk to Alessa’s side. “What if she takes him away for long weekends?”
“I can make myself scarce for a few days.” She’d done it before, especially when their parents had fought.
“What do you know about him?”
“Just his name—Sloan Dugan—and that he’ll be teaching basic business accounting. The classes are filling up, so make sure you tell Dante to enroll soon. I think that’s the real reason Mr. Dugan was allowed in. Most of us are experts in helping others find love, but we have very little practical experience. The new professor is even teaching how to run an online business.”
“Santa is everywhere on the net.” Lia scratched her stom- ach, while frowning at the fresco. “His Christmas Eve journey is even tracked by radar, and kids can email him lists instead of posting letters.”
“With the world’s population being what it is, I imagine computers require far less magic than the old-fashioned way.” Whatever that had been, but it probably involved elves. Lots of elves. Gods, what if Sloan Dugan had pointy ears and was three feet tall?
Alessa glanced at the painting. Psyche had returned to her mountaintop palace and once again blew heart-shaped bub- bles from the balcony. Next to Alessa’s image was a pointy- eared, long-nosed elf straight from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.
Lia shuffled toward the door but stopped as the bubble elf exploded in a shower of pink droplets.
“How old is he? What does he look like? Does he have a mustache?”
Psyche blew another bubble.
“That doesn’t matter.” Alessa poked the fresco before the heart grew too big. “All that matters is, he’ll be sympathetic to my cause because he’s just left a bad relationship.”
Psyche sniffed, tossed her hair and flew along the wall to- ward the back of the room.
“So, you’re going to live with this guy you know next to nothing about, let alone what he looks like, for months, and be with him for hours at a time, right?”
“Si.” It was the perfect cover. Perfect. Provided the gods didn’t interfere.
As if on cue, the back corner cabinet squeaked opened. Three dummy torsos wobbled before tipping out and thudding to the floor. Psyche giggled from her poster taped inside the cabinet door.
“How is that different from the love lottery?”
Alessa set her satchel on the floor by the door and walked down the aisle to the back of the room.
“Because this is just one guy who will leave in four months, not thirty guys who have lived here all their lives and have tried every line queuing up to draw a woman’s name from an urn to marry them.”
Ugh! It just didn’t bear thinking about. Especially when old Signor Sienestra was groping about.
Stooping, she throttled one dummy’s neck and worked it back into the cabinet. Psyche faded out of the poster.
Go pick on someone else for a change.
After stowing all three dummies, she slammed the cabinet and secured the latch.
“What if he’s young, handsome and virile?”
Then four women wouldn’t have let him get away. With or without magic, they would have worked that ring on his finger, even if they had to hire bouncers to hold him down. Love didn’t just make people crazy; it made them do crazy things.
“Pregnancy has affected your brain.”
A man’s shadow hovered on the threshold. Lia stepped
back. Gods, how many times had tourists interrupted today? Five? Six? Some had been downright rude when she reminded them that classes were in session. Alessa shook her head and rushed to her sister’s side. Heavens only knew how outsiders treated pregnant women.
“Tours normally gather in the piazza, er, courtyard. Down the hall, first door on your right. You should find your guide there.”
Hooking the strap of her satchel, she turned toward the door and stopped so fast the soles of her sneakers squeaked. Oh, my! Talk about young, handsome, and virile.
His broad shoulders practically brushed the jambs. Cobalt blue eyes peered at her from under a lock of deep red hair. When he thumped a black Stetson against his well-formed thigh, muscles rippled under his white dress shirt.
“Actually, I’m looking for Les.” He shrugged, and that’s when she noticed it—a duffle bag slung over his shoulder.
Her stomach cramped, and her heart tripped over a beat. Oh, gods, no! Behind her, she heard a tinkle of laughter and a flutter of wings.
The man pulled out a scrap of paper. The familiar red letters C and U of the university letterhead marked the top, but it was the neatly printed words that riveted her attention.
“Les Lombard. I’m supposed to room with him for the rest of the semester.”
“What!” She snatched the paper out of his hand. Aware- ness zipped up her arm before she shook out the note. Her printing. Her address. Her name—artfully torn to leave only Les on a tab.
Lia tossed her head, ringlets danced around her shoul- ders.
“Actually, her full name is Alessa Lombard, and I’m Lia Lombard Trancredo, her sister.” She thrust out her right hand. “And I’m very pleased to meet you…Mr. Dugan, isn’t it?”
Alessa’s fist consumed the paper. No wonder the gods had stuck around. They were waiting to see the results of their trick.
“Sloan Dugan.” He hesitated a moment before accepting Lia’s hand. “And the pleasure is all mine. Do you need help getting anywhere?”
“Thank you, but I’m meeting my husband in the piazza.” Lia grinned before clearing her throat. “I’ll leave you and my sister to get acquainted.”
Alessa bit back a cry. Traitor!
Sloan Dugan stepped into the hall and accompanied Lia down the corridor before opening the door and letting her pass outside.
And he has good manners, too! Leaning against the wall, she thumped her chest before flinging the paper into the rub- bish bin. She was not going to be outsmarted by a bunch of meddling gods. She could handle this. It was no big deal.
A soft twang sounded just before a rubber-tipped arrow hit her square in the chest.