2020: The Gift that Keeps on Giving


2020: The Gift That Keeps on Giving...

2020 may have been a total disaster in some respects, but I kept on keeping on. I'm proud of managing the books I did in the midst of fires and smoke and the pandemic. But I'm proudest of the two charity anthologies I spearheaded during this wild and crazy year. Many thanks to the authors who trusted me with their books, and to readers everywhere who bought both Rising from the Ashes and Hearts on Fire. The first one isn't available any longer, but Hearts on Fire will be for sale for the next few weeks. Be sure to pick it up from your favorite e-book vendor. California's animals burned in our hideous fires will appreciate your support. More on this charity anthology below.

This is the season for giving. Every day, my email is full of worthy causes. I understand times aren't easy right now, but California is still dealing with fires. A new one just broke out about 90 miles north of here last week. 78 homes were lost in a windstorm that fanned the flames like mad. My husband was up there, and he said it was like driving through Dante's Inferno.

I'd be so appreciative if you'd consider Hearts on Fire. This one is a win-win. You get great reads, and burned animals get badly needed veterinary care in the midst of the pandemic.

Love too hot to handle. Unforgettable worlds. Characters you’ll carry in your heart and mind long after you’re done reading.

Fall in love with this fiery collection of 15 urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and fantasy tales! Over $35 worth of outstanding fiction for just 3.99.

All profits will be donated to the Wildlife Disaster Network, a collaborative effort between the UC Davis Veterinary School and the California State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Wildlife Disaster Network was formed specifically to rehabilitate animals injured in California wildfires that decimated four million acres during the fall of 2020.

The authors, cover artist, and photographer who donated books and artwork to the Hearts of Fire collection hope to make a real difference in the lives of these animals. Heartfelt thanks for your support.
Here's one of the bears successfully rehabilitated by the Wildlife Disaster Network. Many of you like reading about shifters, but this is real life stuff. Hopefully, he's dug himself a nice cave and is settlled in to hibernate for the winter.
Review for Court of Rogues
"Five Stars!  Every now and then, you start a book, not knowing exactly what to expect, and the next thing you know you flip the page, you’ve gotten to another REALLY good part, and you see...”You’ve reached the end of....” and all you want to do is scream out loud only to look around and realize it’s 3:30 am and the family’s all in bed. Court if Rogues was that kind of book for me. I picked it up and read it, cover to cover because I couldn't put it down."

Here's an excerpt:

Chapter One, Cyn
The door to my cramped office slapped against its stops, rattling the frosted glass blazoned with Jedediah Rolfson, General Manager, Lady Luck Casino. The gilt lettering had faded, but everyone in the gaming house knew who I was and where to find me. Of course, Jedediah isn’t my true name. Names hold immeasurable power. Even if mortals had been able to pronounce my real one, I’d never, never give them that sort of leverage over me. 
My door was still vibrating. A knock would have been nice. Respectful, even, but manners had passed most mortals by. Fueled by irritation, my power simmered so close to the surface it took an effort to rein it in. No need to turn around to identify the man who’d disturbed what passed for peace in this place.
“What is it, Rudy?” I still hadn’t swiveled my chair to face him.
“How’d you know it was me?” he demanded.
Because I can smell you, idiot…
I did twist then. The motion of my big body forced the ratty leather chair around almost as an afterthought. Stick-straight black hair fell across Rudy’s face, and his white shirt was rolled to the elbows. His usual dark pants were rucked up over the tops of battered leather boots. He looked more like a kitchen knave than a pit boss—an underfed kitchen knave who’d stopped growing as a teenager. I made a point of hiring oddballs—freaks and losers. They weren’t in a rush to use Lady Luck as a steppingstone for something better.
Angling a pointed look his way, I growled, “Never mind how I know things. What’s gone wrong?” I snapped my fingers in the vain hope he might hurry things up.
He squeezed his bloodshot dark eyes shut for a count of two before opening them. “That infernal twit who counts cards is back.”
Many patrons count cards, but only one had posed a challenge recently. Interest flickered as I constructed an image of the leggy red-haired Witch with an iridescent nimbus of power floating around her. “You mean the woman?”
“Of course I mean the blasted woman.” A touch of his Russian accent slipped through. “She’s the only one who’s been able to beat our system.”
“What exactly were you hoping I’d do?”
Color stained his sallow cheeks. It was such an unusual response, I delved into his mind and helped myself to his thoughts. Mortals were quite the superficial lot. Culling through their secrets saved me a lot of time.
“Well?” I snapped my fingers again, more out of frustration than actual hope it would move Rudy off the dime.
“Maybe you can tell her to leave.” He drew himself up to his full five-foot-eight-inch height, but it didn’t have the desired effect. He wanted me to respect him, to back his play, but I’d seen the whole sorry charade in his puny mind. He’d chased the Witch out the last time she stopped by the casino, but he’d also done his damnedest to fuck her.
She’d lured him with a fine set of tits, and then hexed him. Even though he had no concept of what she’d done, her sneaky spell had rendered him impotent. I smothered a chuckle. Witchy charms had a shelf-life. Eventually his little johnny would stand up and salute again, and—
A muted crash came through the audio on one of many screens I’d had mounted so I could see the entire gaming house. Not that I needed them, but they looked good and avoided explanations about how I knew jack concerning the brawl in the basement lounge. The patrons had no idea I spied on them—until I turned them over to the authorities for cheating the house. I’ve been called a lot of names since I was suckered into taking on this thankless job. So far, I’ve maintained my cool.
Eventually, though, some hapless mortal will find himself skewered by Fae magic. They’ll beg for mercy, for the compassion of a human court, but it will be too late. Mortals never leave Faery unless we release them, not intact, anyway. Those who break free end up in institutions.
“Jed?” Rudy prodded.
“Yeah. Yeah. On my way.” I flowed out of my seat. If Rudy weren’t hovering in my doorway, I’d have teleported four floors down. Meanwhile, the ruckus was escalating amid the crash of breaking glassware.
“The thieving card counter?” Rudy’s gaze skittered away.
“Is that why you’re still standing there?” I made shooing motions with both hands. “Christ. Strap on a set. Get moving. I have bigger problems.”
The color that had stained his face turned an ugly tomato shade before he spun and pelted down a nearby stairwell mumbling in Russian. He thought I’d never hear him, but he was whining about the fight that had broken out not being on his floor. If it were, the Witch would have beat a hasty retreat. 
A snarl of frustration burbled past my throat. I’d never been able to pound the whole team player concept down everyone’s throats. Rudy had risen to pit boss because he was honest—and loyal. Maybe it was too much to expect him—or any human in my employ—to show any initiative beyond the basics.
He didn’t like me, but then none of the staff did. They sensed I was different, couldn’t put their fingers on why that was, and felt uncomfortable in my presence.
Good. I’d never lift a finger to alter their instinctive dread of me.
The day humans can lounge in front of Fae royalty—never mind how far we’ve fallen—is the day for me to retire to the Dreaming and never resurface. A quick glance at the monitor reassured me the brawl was in full swing. No one would notice an unorthodox entrance, so I hopped on an enchanted conduit and emerged in the largest of five gaming halls in a blaze of light.
Muted light, but it still would have given someone pause. Not here, though, and not now. What looked like a motorcycle gang—leather and tatts and piercings—had faced off against a bunch of Asian street hoods who fancied themselves a modern-day version of the mob. 
Ha! Bugsy and Al, two of my old buddies, would have laughed until they puked at the comparison. They’d understood how to be badasses because they’d borrowed liberally from Faery. Much of their wickedness never saw the light of day; they were too smart to reveal themselves, and I’d sworn them to silence. Most mortals wouldn’t honor such a bond, but they did. They had no idea what I was, but they’d absorbed my lessons like mother’s milk. I crossed a few lines—eh, more than a few—by teaching them gruesome ways to inflict pain and death. Even then, my kingdom was on its way out. What were a few more broken rules?
Turned out flaunting Fae law held a price beyond measure, but I’m getting ahead of things.
No one noticed me as I crunched over broken glass, my fury growing at the senseless destruction. The acrid stench of piss merged with the coppery tang of blood. If I didn’t establish control over the situation, this room wouldn’t be usable for a few days.
Unacceptable. The tables in this gambling hall raked in better than $50,000 a night.
Grunts and curses rained around me as men punched and knifed one another. I sent magic spiraling out, hunting for the telltale bite of metal. Lady Luck had a no-firearms-or-knives rule, and a metal detector sat at the main entrance. It netted us an impressive array of weapons that we stashed in a safe and turned over to the cops once a week.
Yeah. That’s right. Bring a gun or a shiv into my club, and you have to petition the cops to get it back. Works great if the piece is legal, but most of them weren’t. Ever since I’d established that brilliant bit of policy, we hadn’t seized too many of them.
I’d made it to the front of the large hall. Not a dealer or croupier in sight. Either they were hiding in the shadows, or they’d fled at the first hint of trouble. I’d deal with that later. They were supposed to alert someone like Rudy. Or me. I employed half a dozen pit bosses who rotated through the club.
I’d heard from Rudy, but not about this mess.
Someone catapulted into me from the side brandishing a knife. I punched him squarely in the neck, and he dropped like a stone. Shouts told me I’d made someone happy by knocking out one of their enemies. Another dude decked out in black leather rushed me from the back. I knew he was coming, but I let him think he was getting away with something.
I swear, mortals’ intelligence has been on the wane for the past hundred years. If Shit For Brains had any at all, he’d have recognized a dead-to-the-world five-year-old would have heard him bearing down on me. Timing is everything. I turned at the precise moment to hit him with a one-two combo to the gut and heart. I might have killed him, but I didn’t care.
Once he was squealing and twitching at my feet, I cupped my hands around my mouth and amplified my voice with magic laced with you’d-better-do-what-I-say-or-your-days-will-be-numbered compulsion.
“Stop. Right Now.” Three little words. No need to repeat them.
A slow lazy smile formed, stretching my face into an unaccustomed configuration. Yay me. I still had it. Everyone had frozen in place.
“Excellent,” I went on, smooth as melted butter. “Everyone get the fuck out of here except your top dogs. Take the fallen with you.”
As the crowd cleared, shuffling toward the door, another of my pit bosses scuttled to my side and cleared her throat. “Sorry, boss,” Tatiana mumbled. “I went to find you, but your office was empty.”
Kind of like your head.
I’d learned to squelch comments like that long ago. Mortals were notoriously thin-skinned, and Tatiana reeked of fear. She hadn’t pissed herself, but it had been nip-and-tuck. Her blonde hair was in an updo, and her skin pale under heavy makeup. She would have been pretty without all the war paint. Blue eyes, her best feature, were framed by thick lashes, and she wore Lady Luck’s standard employee uniform: white shirt and black pants. Most of the shirts carried the Lady Luck logo, a phoenix sinking into a crater.
The symbolism escaped everyone except me, and I’d never been in a sharing mood when it came to questions like, “What’s that mean, boss?” Besides, even if I told them it represented Faery’s decline, they’d have thought I’d had too much to drink.
Meanwhile, four men had moved closer, but not too close. Like I said, I make humans nervous.
“Yeah?” One narrowed his eyes. “What’d you want us for?”
I nailed him with my gaze. I employ a glamour. It smooths the points of my ears and makes my eyes appear blue, rather than a mix of silver and gold with coppery centers. For the slightest of moments, I let it slip a notch, just a hint of a blur.
The dude rubbed his eyes. “Shit. Drunker than I thought.” His words were slurred.
It was tempting to display more of what I really was. I shrugged it off. No point in making him yearn for the impossible. He’d be drawn to my deviant beauty. More than drawn. He’d twist himself into a pretzel for one more peek. If I’d wanted a lackey, sure, but I had other plans for him and his partners in crime. 
“You have two choices,” I told the men who were shifting from foot to foot as they looked mostly at the floor. “Grab mops and buckets and clean up the mess you made.”
“Or?” One tried for a sneer, but didn’t quite manage it.
“Or I hold you here and call the cops. Property damage is a felony. Bet you’ve had a few of those already.”
I rocked back on my heels, waiting. Tatiana had drawn closer to me, not because I was warm and fuzzy, but because the thugs made her even more nervous than I did.
“Big talk. How are you planning to keep us from leaving?” Shit For Brains Number Two asked.
I swept an arm wide. “I don’t have to. You’re all on camera. I give the cops the feed and voila.” I dusted my hands together. “I’m sure they know you already.”
“We’ll clean,” he gritted out.
“It would go faster with more of us,” another pointed out.
“Probably so, but I don’t want ‘more of you’ in here,” I told him. “While we’re on that little topic, you and your gang members are barred from Lady Luck from here on in.”
The one who’d said his life would be simpler with drones to order about drew himself up. “You can’t do that, man.”
“The hell I can’t,” I retorted and turned to Tatiana. “Show these fellows where the cleaning supplies are and oversee the work. They don’t leave until you’re satisfied they’ve done a good job.”
Her blue eyes widened. “Erm. Maybe the head of janitorial would be better for that.”
“He might be,” I agreed, trying for an amiable tone, “but I assigned this job to you.”
Something in my voice told her arguing was pointless. She’d run at the first whiff of fighting. That story about coming to find me had been pure fabrication. She rolled her shoulders back, barked, “Follow me,” and loped across the expanse of parquet flooring.
After a pause a shade too long for my liking, the men turned to follow her. Just so there’d be no misunderstandings later, I called after them, “Don’t even think about hassling her. If you do, I’ll find out.”
I left it there. No need to spell out what I’d do to their sorry, shitty asses if they made a grab for Tatiana’s tits or any other part of her. I retreated to one side and wrapped myself in shadows. I wouldn’t remain long, only until the cleanup project was underway.
I hadn’t realized I’d clenched my hands into fists, and I uncurled my fingers one by one. Damn it, anyway. Everything was broken—and I didn’t mean in this gaming room. I was here, straddling worlds, to mend what I could, but I hadn’t made much progress.
Or any if I were honest.
Aye, and when I start lying to myself, I’m done for, a patronizing inner voice spouted off.
I wasn’t the source of the original damage. It could be traced directly to the Fae court, who’d decided it would be a grand idea to kick Faery’s gates open to mortals a century ago. Not that any of us ever cared about humans. We’ve always held them in contempt, but we wanted their money.
They’d done a bang-up job stripping their world of everything salable and grown filthy rich in the process. My kinsmen are drawn by gold—and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sing to me as well. We all love wealth, which is strange since our creature needs are taken care of in Faery.
At first, around the end of the 1800s, everything appeared to be going smoothly. We provided something not unlike a circus attraction for the well-heeled. One element none of us had reckoned on was Faery herself. Our land is alive, and she rebelled at the presence of those without power. Not right away, but when it happened the backlash was swift, sure, and brutal…
Buckets clattered as they rolled across the faux wooden floor. Some establishments have carpet. Not mine. For just this reason. My impromptu work crew dug in. Two men looked as if they’d never seen a mop before, but after Tatiana taunted them for being inept dicks, they shaped up.
I heard cheers from the strip show one floor up. No reason for me to stay here. I’d have it out with the dealers and croupiers at the all-staff meeting tomorrow afternoon. Tucking my hands into my pockets, I strolled through a wall, angling until I intersected a stairwell. Rather than naming the deserters, perhaps I’d be better served reiterating club policies to everyone.
The more I considered it, the better I liked my idea. I’d gin up something and have everyone e-sign it. I started to head for the floor show. Getting a gander at bouncing breasts and shaved pussies always settled my mind. Or diverted it, anyway. My cock thickened where it was tucked into my trousers, and I curled my fingers around it, enjoying sensation as it skittered through me.
Sex served as a reminder of the Witch. My cock grew more distended as I remembered her striking face and generous curves. To hell with the dancers in the lounge. I wanted the Witch—up close and personal.
If she was still in Lady Luck, I’d weave a lust spell, make her see only me. My errant member twitched against my fingers. “Yes, yes,” I told my sidekick. “She’ll want you so much, she won’t be able to contain herself.”
Rudy managed the blackjack and poker tables. A magnet for card counters, they spanned two rooms on the second floor. I couldn’t do much about my erection. It would be as useless as attempting to stuff a genie back into a bottle, so I crafted a diversion spell from my waist down. It would draw eyes away from the tented-out front of my pants.
I bounded into the nearest chamber, gratified by the small noises that verified Lady Luck was making money. Chips clicking, dealers calling for bets, and cries of delight as patrons raked in cash. 
Rudy sidled up to me. “How’d it go?”
“It’s handled. How about your assignment.”
He screwed his face into an angry mask, adding ten years to his grizzled appearance. “I tried, but I’m not getting anywhere near that bitch ever again. She did something to her blackjack dealer.”
“What do you mean, did something?” I added a jot of magical coercion to my question.
“He’s not right. Won’t look at me. Won’t answer me.”
Damn my eyes, it sure sounded like a hex. “Is she still at his table?”
Rudy nodded. “I told the dealer not to authorize payout, but—”
“Never mind. I’ll take it from here.”
“Thanks.” For once, Rudy looked cowed, and embarrassed. Like most men, admitting defeat is right up there with swallowing glass shards.
The Witch wasn’t in this room, so I crossed the hall and walked into the other one. The feel of her power smacked me mid-chest. Witch magic smells delightful. Aged whiskey and wildflowers with a touch of blood to blend everything together. This witch was old. I could tell from her scent and the extent of her power. It oozed from her and had wrapped around the dealer in visible strands.
Oberon’s balls. She didn’t need to count cards. She had the dealer in thrall. What did she think she was? A fucking Vampire? Whatever game she was running, she could damn well take it elsewhere.
I strode across the big room with its colorful tables. Horse races played on big screen televisions lining one wall. We took a bite out of bets placed on them too. Unlike a mortal, the Witch knew I was coming. I felt her attention, even though her back was turned.
A long skirt swirled around her sandal-clad feet. Made of a pale green sheer material, it offered tantalizing glances of long legs and made it clear she hadn’t bothered with underwear. An equally sheer tunic made of silver fabric embroidered with violet runes covered her from shoulder to hip. Her shapely arms were bare. She told the dealer to hold up—in Gaelic—and he complied. I knew damn good and well Hector didn’t speak Gaelic. He’s Native American from a local reservation.
How deep in trance did she have him, anyway, that he responded to commands in a foreign tongue?
Slowly, tantalizingly, she twisted until she faced me, upper body first, followed by a two-step motion that bought her hips around. Her eyes were a pale, clear green, her face a study in perfection with high, slanted cheekbones, a regal forehead, and a strong chin.
When she smiled and ran her tongue over her lush lower lip, I dropped a hasty ward around myself. She could dupe a mortal—snare them in her spells—but I was Fae, and my interest in fucking her had staged a dramatic retreat.
The Witch angled her head to one side, still giving me come-hither vibes. “I know what you are,” she purred.
Her words tossed still more cold water on my arousal. “Aye, and I know what ye are as well, Madame Witch,” I growled back in Gaelic. “Get out of my casino.”
Her full lips formed a pout. “You’re no fun.” Her magic intensified, pummeling my warding.
My control snapped and I grabbed her upper arm, squeezing hard. “Where is your coven? I will return you, as is my duty for any renegade Witch.” I’d stuck to Gaelic, and an archaic form at that. Zero chance of anyone understanding it—other than Witchy-gal.
“No need to get tetchy.” She yanked her arm, but I held fast.
“Your coven?” I added a whopping heap of compulsion to my query.
Her face twisted in pain, and I had a momentary twinge of conscience for forcing her. “Don’t have one,” she ground out.
Her reply had been true, but it shocked me. “Covens are a requirement,” I lectured. “After the Witch uprising of 1943—”
A violent twist jerked her arm out of my grasp. “Don’t lecture me on my own history,” she hissed. “I’m…different.”
“We all are, sweetheart,” I told her tartly. “Misfits attract magic.”
Her lips twitched into half a smile. “Hate to admit it, but that’s catchy.”
Fuckity-fuck. She was still trying to con me. “Yeah. Now beat it. And don’t come back.”
“But I need the money.” Her pouty look was back.
“Not my problem, darling. Turn tricks. Get an honest job. Before you go, release my dealer from whatever you did to him.”
“If I do, will you hire me?”
The question came out of left field, leaving me dumbstruck. Luckily, a loss for words never lasts long. I started to say hell would freeze over before I’d offer her work, but something stayed my tongue.
“Show up here at five tomorrow afternoon. We’ll talk about it.”
She tilted her chin and ran her gaze from my toes to my head. Something about her direct stare got me going all over again, even through my warding.
“Good enough.” She nodded and walked to the dealer. Reaching into his pants pocket, she withdrew a charm, breathed on it, and we both watched it disintegrate into motes of light.
I eyed the dealer. He still stood motionless, a dreamy expression in place. “Get rid of the other ones too,” I told her.
Breath swooshed from her mouth. “I was getting to them. Can’t hurry these things or he might turn into the village idiot.”
Village idiots predated medieval times, so I asked, “How old are you?”
“Never ask a lady her age,” she retorted and retrieved two more charms. By the time they were dead, the dealer was starting to look more like a man and less like a puppet.
She regarded him and spoke a few words before turning to me. “There. Give it a few and he won’t remember a thing about any of this. See you tomorrow.” Her hips swung enticingly as she strode away.
“What’s your name?” I called after her.
“You’ll find out tomorrow. When I complete the employment application,” she replied in mind speech, not bothering to turn around.
I was still sorting how a Witch had mastered telepathy, not a skill native to their magic, when the dealer made a grunting noise. “Boss. What happened? I feel…off.”
“Take a break,” I told him. “Back to your table in fifteen.”
Without waiting for more questions, I walked out of the card room. It was only an hour from closing time. I could skip the rest of tonight’s never-ending drama and slip into Faery. My magic needed a boost, and my mind a rest. The mortal world dragged at me, drained my essence, and made me long for an earlier time.
One before we’d opened our doors to humankind.
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That's it for this newsletter. I'll check back in before the thick of the holiday season. Here's a picture of Dru with his friend Rocket. They look so much alike until you see Rocket's face. I am grateful to live where I do with hundreds of miles of wilderness around me. It's made such a huge difference right now.


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