Sequel Excerpts: Happy Publishversary Thirty Nights!

Hey everyone!

Two emails in one week, you say? What’s happening! Nothing much. Just today is the one-year anniversary since Thirty Nights was published.  Oh the chills and thrills of that day.    I’m feeling them all over again, even as I get ready to finish my second book and start the third. How about celebrating with the first three chapters of Ninety Days?  Here they are in draft form.  Not edited yet so things may change for the final publication.  Hope you enjoy!  And thank you to all of you who bought Thirty Nights, told a friend about it, and have stayed loyal to me throughout this time. – Love, Ani

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1

Flight

Every airplane hurtling across the sky carries goodbyes. Some for days, some for life. Then there is mine—the unknown kind.

I stare out of the Plexiglas window into dense darkness. It’s midnight back in Portland, Oregon. Did Reagan make it home safe? Is she curled up on my bed, still crying? And Javier—does he even have a bed in his jail cell? Or is he slumped on the floor, staring at darkness just like me? I leave the hardest person for last . . . him . . . Aiden Hale, I force myself to think the name. Is he awake? Or finally asleep—relieved to have me out of his life?

A burning pain—part rage, part agony—flares like a livid wound between my lungs, and I close the window shade. The businessman next to me is snoring softly. I avoid looking at his charcoal suit—so similar to Aiden’s when it hung closely with my dresses. The wound throbs again, and I gaze at the crumpled note still in my hand. Aiden’s right-hand man, Benson, scribbled it on a torn piece of paper like he was out of time.

Elisa,

I am breaking Mr. Hale’s rules by giving you his letters in hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.

Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life.

Benson

I have the words memorized, but they still seem scrambled. Alone they make sense, but together they mean nothing. What does Benson know about my mistakes? About our regrets?  What rules is he breaking? Why? What’s the difference between the man I know and the one I heard today?

I know the answer to that last one. Aiden Hale—the man I thought I knew, the man I loved—would have never reported Javier to the immigration police just to save my future. He would have never ruined my little family. He would have never hurt someone I love. But the man he truly is—the man I saw today with finally clear eyes—did all of that, and admitted it three times.

The burning ache rages up my throat, constricting it until I can’t breathe. I loosen my scarf, searching for air. It blows in a steady gust from the airplane vent. Straight into the center of my forehead. Where Aiden’s lips rested last. Where my father’s lips rested always.

I lift my face toward the vent and draw a huge gulp of pressurized air. In, out. Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.008, helium, 4.002, lithium, 6.94—

“Miss? May I get you anything?” A hushed feminine voice murmurs next to me.

I turn to the flight attendant, trying not to look at her Union Jack scarf that reminds me of Reagan and her obsession with all things British. “Some coffee, please,” I whisper.

Her eyebrows arch—coffee is not the drink of choice at this hour—but she scurries back to the galley for the pot.

I know this is a mistake. I know I should try to sleep. It would be easier to shut down, drift into a different place, a different time. Perhaps I would be back in Portland again. On the couch with Reagan, listening to Lana Del Rey. Or in Javier’s studio, looking at his paintings. Or perhaps in a rose garden, tangled under the blooms with the Aiden I loved, not the one I discovered today.

Yes, it would be easier to sleep, but I cannot. Because if I sleep, this day will be over.  If I sleep, this will be the last day in my home, the last time I saw my family, the last time I held my best friend, the last time I was in love. And when I wake up, everything I have will be yesterday. It will be the past.

“Miss? Your coffee?” The flight attendant is back, holding a steaming Styrofoam cup. How long has she been standing there, waiting?

“Thank you,” I mumble, gripping the cup with both hands. She nods and cruises up the aisle, checking on the only other overhead light that is still on. I gulp the coffee, hoping it will burn. It does, and that’s good. Because this kind of burning pain I can understand. When the flight attendant strolls down the aisle again, I refuse the pillow and blanket but take more coffee until that last light is off, and I am the only passenger awake.

Alone now—as though this should matter—I take the stack of Aiden’s envelopes from my rucksack, running my fingers over the coarse commissary paper. Forty-eight of them—one for each of his last days in Iraq. They’re not marked or organized in any way—only yellowed by time. I feel each one for thickness. About the same—one page, two at most. This would be a good time to open them. They would keep me awake. They would let me escape in a love story that was almost mine. But perversely I do not. At first, I don’t understand my reaction. This afternoon I would have ripped them open, drinking in each word, each syllable. But as the plane charges through the night, the reasons for my resistance become clear.

One, there is nothing in these letters written twelve years ago that can explain or justify what happened today.

Two, they will only break me further.

Three, I cannot survive any more breaking.

I tuck the envelopes back in my rucksack, along with Benson’s note and Aiden’s dog tags. Then I raise my face to the vent again, turn off the light, and shut my eyes.

I am not asleep. My senses are heightened, as though my body is on survival mode. I hear the snore of my suited neighbor, the rustle of a blanket as someone tosses and turns, the whoosh of compressed air, and, above all, the rumble of the jet as the thousands of miles race by. Toward ghosts.

2

Homage

The black iconic cab comes to a full stop on the side of the gravelly road. For a moment, the sight outside the window stuns me. Not because I didn’t expect it—I’ve been conjuring up this image over and over since I stumbled off that plane—but because nothing about it has changed. Not the low hill rising straight ahead, or the single trail meandering to its peak, or River Windrush flowing behind the blackthorn shrubs. Even the skylarks sing invisible in the air the same mosaic. Everything is exactly the same as I remember it. Time does not touch places like England. It only withers those who want to leave it behind.

“Sure this is the place, duckie?” The cabbie’s voice startles me, as though I’ve been yanked back through a space portal. He glances at the deserted road, then back at Burford’s spires and rooftops in the distance. “No soul ‘round ‘ere.”

“Yes, this is it.” I will never forget a blade of grass from this hill, or the tiny meadow on top. And yes, there are souls here.

For some reason, the cabbie frowns but then shakes his head. “Right. Tha’ ull be nine’y quid, then.”

            Ninety pounds, 129.73 dollars. I dig inside my rucksack for the new, crisp notes. They look too flashy, too colorful compared to my American dollars. I hand the cabbie two fuchsia fifties and a mauve twenty, and stumble out.

It takes a while for that first step, but it’s the only step I’m sure about. Behind me, the cabbie is still watching. I start treading up the dirt road toward the hill, listening to the crunch of gravel under my old, worn sneakers. It’s warm—a typical June day for Burford—but my hands are chilled, even my toes. I know why. Chills are a symptom of grief. It will be months, maybe even years before I no longer feel cold. I walk faster, fixing my eyes on the sunny hilltop.

As though it senses my gaze, the peak summons my body, jolting it forward. A buzzing energy spikes in my muscles. Abruptly, I start running. Clouds of dust burst around my feet as I sprint down the road. The gravel is ending now, turning to grass, and I charge up the windy trail. The crest is straight above, beckoning me upward. My thighs burn, my breath comes in loud, sharp huffs, but I keep running. The rucksack rattles on my back with a faint metallic jingle from Aiden’s dog tags. I push my legs harder. The hilltop is closer now; the wind whips my sweaty face, flinging my hair everywhere, whooshing in my ears. Another summit, higher and craggier than this—Aiden’s Alone Place—flits in my vision, and I stumble. I shove the memory aside and hurtle toward the peak. Streaking past shrubs and trees, tripping, falling and getting up again. Three more strides now, two, one. I leap into the tiny crest meadow, gasping for air.

The dazzling sunlight blinds me, but I don’t blink. I don’t move a millimeter, even though every band of muscle is quivering. Because there, across the swaying grass, the white marble tombstone glimmers under the solitary cypress tree. The same as then, the same as it will always be.

Grief slashes through me, and my knees give out. I sink here at the edge of the meadow, wrapping my arms around my ribcage to keep it from imploding. Hydrogen, I think desperately. Hydrogen, hydrogen, hydrogen . . . But there is no trick for this kind of pain. The only way to survive this is to feel it.

A golden ray of sun shatters over the marble into a thousand sparkles, and I wish I believed it was a smile. They have waited four years, four months and twenty-nine days for me. And I have abandoned them. I wrench myself up, unwilling to make them wait a single minute longer. But even though I dash across the meadow, it seems to take too long to reach them.

I am there at last. Mum and Dad rest together under the same marble cover. The tombstone stands sentinel above their heads, glistening with a million rainbow crystals.

Peter Andrew Snow & Clare Emilia Snow

10 October 1962 – 8 January 2011; 16 December 1967 – 8 January 2011

Amor Vincit Omnia

            The miniature climbing roses I planted have grown. Their white buds are about to bloom around the epitaph. Abruptly, I wish I had brought them something—something other than my grief. I rummage through my rucksack, pawing through my clothes, pushing aside the envelopes, until I find what I want all way in the bottom, swathed inside a sock. The crystal vial with the dried rose from Mum’s garden. It has followed me from the day I left here, all way across the ocean, and back again. I rest it gently under the epitaph and kneel, running my icy hand over the marble.

To my surprise, it is not cold. It’s warm, almost hot from the sun. My fingertips thaw slightly, and I spread both hands on the marble, pressing them against it. The stone doesn’t budge, but the wind gentles and blows my hair away from my face. Like a caress.

How often have I thought about the words I would say to them and now, I can’t form them. Instead of words, or even letters, my body breaks into dry, violent sobs. My entire frame is shaking, vibrating until my teeth start to chatter. The tombstone tilts and blurs. A strange, strangled sound rips through my teeth, drowning the gentle hum of the wind. Under my knees the earth is rocking with a cradle-like movement. I know it’s not the earth; it’s me. I grip the marble edge and rest my cheek on the slab. Exactly where Mum’s chest would be.

I keep my eyes only on the epitaph I chose. Love conquers all. What a beautiful lie to tell. As though to prove the truth, the last four years burst through all my walls and fill my vision with every love I’ve lost. Dad’s Oxford thinker lines, Mum’s rosy cheeks, Maria’s liver-spotted hands, Antonio’s rumbly voice, the little girls’ giggles, Javier’s sunny smile, and Aiden’s sapphire eyes brightening to turquoise in peace as he looks at me. Agony tears through me, knocking me breathless, blinding me with its force. My body convulses as wave after wave of pain swells over me, fighting over which lost beloved face will rip me into pieces. I grip the marble tighter—my only anchor in the squall—and shut my eyes.

“Hydrogen,” I rasp. “Oxygen, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen . . .” In the deluge, I can’t recall the atomic weights of the elements or their order, but I choke out their names over and over and over. The marble radiates warmth through my chest, and the sun heats my back as though they’re battling the storm with me. I focus only on the world outside my head—the woody scent of cypress, the birds’ warble, the dewy grass under my knees—until the sobs recede and the shivers slow down. I don’t know how long it takes. Time no longer has meaning. But when they finally stop, I don’t move. I just lie there, breathing the hilltop air. It’s fine, I tell myself, it’s fine; you survived it. It can’t get worse than that.

3

Oath

At first, I think it’s the wind. Brushing through my tangled locks gently, sweeping them away from my face. But the caress feels too substantial, fingers instead of air. Combing through my strands, grazing my cheek softly.

“Elisa?” A low, husky voice murmurs next to me. Its rich timbre is so beautiful that my heart twitches with ache.

“Elisa? Baby?” The voice croons again, this time closer. A gust of warm breath tickles my cheek, and the fiery aroma of cinnamon wafts with the grass-scented air. I inhale deeply, for some reason surprised that my lungs are working.

“Elisa, can you hear me?” The voice pleads with heartbreaking softness. I open my mouth to answer but something silky, like petals, touches my lips.

“Open your eyes, love.” That word, that last word—so small, so big when the voice says it. My eyelids flutter to obey, but deep in my belly, something starts to thrash and claw as though in warning. It doesn’t want me to listen to the voice.

“Please, Elisa!” The voice begs now, breaking with anxiety. I ignore the thrashing thing—nothing is worth the anguish in this voice—and fling my eyes open.

I am glad I did.

Because the moment I see the seraphic face, twisted with tension, a sense of well-being washes over me. Rightness, the word resounds in my head, and strangely I remember the laughter of children.

“Aiden?” I sigh.

The deep sapphire eyes gazing back at me start brightening, like always. Marine, cerulean, azure, and finally a light, peaceful turquoise. The rest of his face glows, effervescent with beauty. I raise my hand to touch his cheek, but his eyes lock.

“Once I love, I love forever,” he says, and disappears.

My hand clutches around freezing, pitch-black void.

A guttural cry pierces the silence, and I jolt up, blinking and panting. The first thing that comes into focus is the tombstone, rose-gold now, no longer warm. The meadow is empty, grass swaying with wind, not with someone’s passage. The sky is a swirl of vermilion and sapphire. The color sends my insides throbbing. A lark rockets out of the cypress high into the air, its dusk song replacing my cry. I shudder where I am, frozen solid to the marble. Gulping the crisp air, I sit there a while longer, trying to shake off the nightmare.

No, not a nightmare. It was a lovely dream. And not just a dream, but a memory. A composite of beautiful moments I have truly lived. The rose petals on my lips like our first embargo morning; my epiphany of wanting my own children as Aiden and I babysat Javier’s sisters; Aiden’s gentle caress every time he woke me up; his words, his promises—all of that happened, they really happened.

With a feeling of dread, I realize that things can get a lot worse. Where traumatic memories didn’t kill me, the beautiful ones will do the job.

I scramble up—my body screaming with its own agony. A razor-sharp ache wrings my shoulders and neck. My muscles burn with stiffness and from the sprint up the hill. My ears, nose, fingers, and toes are numb with cold, and my throat is raw as though I’ve scrubbed it with sand paper. Everywhere I touch, it hurts. And I deserve it.

Suddenly, I’m furious with myself. For everything. For falling asleep on a grave, for drinking so much bloody coffee that I couldn’t sleep until my body collapsed in exhaustion, for drifting into memories when I should focus on the present and, above all, for still feeling the way I do about him.

These are faults serious enough to earn me my own padded room at the Burford Hospital, but fury is pouring freely now for all my decisions, all my mistakes. Inflicting him on the Solises, falling for him against all sense and reason, getting on that fucking plane to America in the first place, running away like a coward, abandoning everything the two people under this headstone tried to give me. Rage pulses through me, hot like the gushing blood of a wounded animal. It claws against my chest, and I finally recognize the thing that was clawing inside me in the dream. Even asleep, I make mistakes. My hands ball up in fists, and a scream tears through my lips. The force of my anger scorches my throat, stretching my vocal chords until I run out of oxygen.

It feels good. It feels good to scream by choice, and not for him.

He will not have any more pieces of me.

I straighten up, breathing hard and brushing grass from my jeans. But as I look down at myself—standing here by a grave with stained clothes, frozen limbs, no food in my stomach, no water, only aches and shivers—I know the problem is deeper than him. The problem is me.

Shame takes the place of rage and settles deep. It roots me here for a while as all the mistakes of my last four years merge into one thing: I keep letting myself get hurt over and over again. I keep chasing dreams. Well, no more. This is my third chance at the life I was meant to live. Science, roses, tea . . . quiet. Perhaps with time it will not feel like another death or a betrayal. Perhaps when I’m gray and old, I might even say I healed.

I stumble up to the tombstone and rest my hand on it. The words I’ve wanted to tell my parents finally come.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “For everything.”

The leaves of the miniature roses flutter in the wind like a nod. Strange how human beings will find signs to confirm what we want to hear.

I reach in my rucksack one more time, and fish out the dog tags. They jingle with a joyful sound at odds with their macabre purpose of identifying soldiers for burial. My fingers tremble over the letters carved in the steel surface.

Aiden Hale; Blood type zero; Social Security Number 520-13-1117; No religious preference for burying.

Of its own volition, my hand clutches around the tags so tight that the metal edges dig into my skin and my knuckles crack with the strain. How can someone with the blood type that saves everyone else destroy so many lives? I wrench my hand open and pick up the rose vial from the tombstone. I lift its hermetic seal and drop the tags inside, next to the dead rose. Then I reseal the cap and set the vial back on the grave.

“Goodbye,” I tell him.

A gust of wind blows through the hilltop, hugging me once, and then it’s gone.

©2016 Ani Keating

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Sequel update, Aiden’s Thirty Nights, and a little thank-you.

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Hello everyone,

Happy belated Veteran’s Day! I know it has been a while since you heard from me.  I have been busy writing the sequel while also managing my real job (why does everything get insanely busy at the same time?).  Many of you have asked for the release of the sequel and I haven’t been able to respond as my publisher was going through some major business changes.  They were going to close and removed some editors, including mine which put a pause on a lot of things. But after a long period of negotiations, they are safe and saved and doing well.  It’s hard not just for authors out there.  So we are back in business despite the delay.  I appreciate all your patience and support throughout this tricky and difficult process.  I am getting a new editor, who is excellent, but she has to play a little catch up in the series and I have to do some more writing.  So we are aiming for a Spring release date.  Deep breaths! I know. I want it out as soon as possible too.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support.  And because I know you’ve been missing Aiden and Elisa, and to celebrate Veteran’s Day, I wanted to give you a little something.  A part of Thirty Nights told by Aiden’s perspective.  So many readers have asked for a peek inside his mind–which is difficult because his mind is so complex.  The most requested scene was their first coffee date.  So here it is: Chapter 10—Paradox, from Aiden’s perspective.  What do you think? Is he like you thought? Different? Anything surprises you about him? I hope you enjoy him.

THIRTY NIGHTS OF HALE

Chapter 10

Paradox

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…
My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life…
We will become part of each other…

The United States Marine Creed

 Saturday morning at precisely 9:42, Benson pulls into the Reed East Parking lot by the Chemistry building, as far from Denton’s lab as possible.

“We’re here, sir,” he says.

Here. Yes, here. What the fuck am I doing here?

I know very well what I’m doing. I am further solidifying my standing at the top of The World’s Most Obsessive and Dangerous Suitors.

I stare out of the Rover’s window—an unnecessary, empty action. I already remember every pixel of this image. Except the new leaves in the gutter, the buds on the cherry trees, and two blue jays pecking at some breadcrumbs on the sidewalk.

“School is out so the campus should be all empty,” continues Benson. “There’s no one around. And I’ll follow from a distance.”

I roll down the window—another unnecessary, empty action—but its whirling noise fills the air with a sound other than Benson’s words. A sound other than the disease I’m dragging into this misty spring morning. Into Elisa Snow’s life.

“She’ll be safe, sir,” Benson persists.

His words—low, in his deep drawl—splinter the air. Instead of assuring me, I feel something similar to the sharp cadence of a rifle being loaded. A looming sense of an irreversible shot in the air that forever changes the war. The trouble in this case is that I don’t hold the weapon; I am the weapon. Cold metal getting warmer in a soft feminine hand. Loaded to the brim with bullets. She only has to choose where to aim me. My horror is that like any rifle, I could hurt my owner just as well as my enemy. And like any rifle, I no longer seem to have a will of my own. I am only as good as the hand that wields me.   Maybe I’ll be lucky and Elisa will point me to whatever is haunting her so I can end it.   Or maybe luck will be on her side and she won’t pick me up at all. But there is a third option – the bloodiest one – that she will pick me up and aim me at herself.

Of all three options, the one I should want is the second – that she will stay away from me, perhaps after using me for Option One. But, deadly as I am, the option I dread as much as I covet is the last. The one where I claim her as mine once and for all. This is my Catch 22: there is no middle ground for me. No alternative where she could just hold me without firing. That’s the problem with loaded weapons: we all aim at something.

A thought flickers once. Maybe there is an Option Four: she can unload the rifle. I snort. No, darling, this rifle is incapable of being unloaded. It has held a bullet in the chamber since it was born.

“Sir?” Benson asks, a bit more forcefully this time. “Should we go back?”

That does it. No, I don’t want to go back. I want to see her. That’s why I am here—first and foremost. To see her. Not her image in my memory, not her fantasy in my sleep. Her. And a few other reasons as well . . . Abruptly, I feel lighter.

“All right, I’m going,” I say, opening my door. “Follow us but not too close. “

“Where will you take her?”

“Wherever she wants… that’s safe.” He knows what that means. I slam the door and take the worn path to the Chemistry building, resolutely ignoring the ludicrous question of whether I look good enough for this meeting. And what exactly am I going to talk to her about? I should have memorized an Organic Chemistry textbook or maybe some Quantum Physics, instead of wallowing in self-loathing next to Benson. Well, if push comes to shove, I can talk about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I read that 12 years ago. Boring as desert sand.

I yank open the doors to the Chemistry Building with a strange, enervating energy. I take the stairs to Denton’s office two at a time. Even though Elisa Snow has no idea I am here, somehow I feel late. 32 years late.

Denton’s office is closed, the lights off. But down the hall, his lab is open, buzzing with an ominous hissing crackle that does not sound healthy for a place chock-full of chemicals. Fuck! What if she is here early and is in danger? I start sprinting to the lab before I realize that she knows more about Chemistry than I do. Flying past the glass-pane windows, I try to assess the situation. I marshal all my knowledge for dealing with chemical weapons and burst through the lab doors, scanning the area corner to corner. Thank God! She is not here. Instead, a slight boy with tar-black hair sticking out in every direction is standing over a white-tiled workstation, mumbling to himself in triplicate.

“Crap, crap, crap! No, no, no. Shush! Shush! Shush! Be good, Beaker, be good. Do not break. Do not break. Ugh, Snow will kill me this time.” He is fidgeting with some crucible tongs in one hand and forceps in the other.

Good Lord! This must be her replacement. Fuck me—my grant is wasted if this fucknut is going to oversee the testing stage of Elisa’s supplement invention. Something hisses again and he jumps back like the beaker is about to bite him. I want to announce myself but this kid does not look like he can handle the strain of an introduction right now. Suddenly, he lurches forward and turns off the burner under the beaker. The hissing stops.

“There! Nice beaker. Nice beaker,” he whispers.

I clear my throat quietly to get his attention. He yelps and whirls around, eyes as wide as his goggles. But when he sees me, he takes a deep breath, his knees buckle, and he grips the counter. I have to repress a laugh when I realize he was worried that I was Elisa Snow.   The idea that, to this kid, she is scarier than I am is ludicrous.

“Hello,” he says, clearly grateful that he will live for another few seconds.

“Pardon the interruption. Is this a safe time?” I ask, in case he has something else brewing that may explode and blow us all into smithereens.

“Oh, yeah, yeah. I unplugged the Bunsen. Sorry. I’m… well… ah… new… here. I mean I’m a second year, but new with Denton and Snow.   Real coup to train with them, ya know. Forty-two people applied. Still… ah… um… who are you?” he rattles off in one short, nervous breath.

Replacing Elisa Snow as Denton’s Chief Research Fellow must be quite a feat. Although I have no claim to her whatsoever, I feel a strong sense of pride.

“I’m Aiden Hale,” I say, stepping inside the lab. “I… ah… I’m looking for Miss Snow.” Apparently, Elisa Snow makes all men stutter.

Fucknuts looks like he cannot imagine why any man in his right mind would walk around looking for Miss Snow voluntarily.   His eyes dart to the clock on the wall.

“She should be here any minute. She’s never late. I’m running the experiment today so she should have time.” He starts to resemble very much the green goop in the beaker. He nods awkwardly once and takes off his goggles. Then he dons a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and starts scrubbing the beaker vigorously.

At his intense focus, I feel the need to pace. The energy that was building in my blood has seeped in my brain, in my lungs. I look around the lab to distract myself from my ridiculous physical reaction to the mere anticipation of her. Instantly, I recognize what must be her desk. It’s spotless. The polished surface reflects the fluorescents. A large collection of pens bursts like a bouquet from a small crystal vase. Most of them have multi-colored feathers glued on top, like quills. Others have butterflies, flowers, or soccer balls.

I inch closer to her desk, craving even this slight voyeurism into her world. If Fucknuts weren’t here, I’d open the drawers. As it is, the eidetic beast inside my head inhales everything in double time. At the corner of the desk, there is a spray bottle labeled “Rose-Scented Ethanol”. Next to it, a small, clear glass jar of white cream, labeled “Shea Olive You”. It takes me a moment to realize it’s a pun. Good God, she makes her own cosmetics! From the silky feel of her hand, they work. On the shelf above the desk, is a solved twelve-sided Rubik’s Cube because clearly, a six-sided one would be too easy.

“Ah, here she is!” Fucknuts cries out.

I turn around. And there she is indeed!

Standing by the lab door, gazing at me. On cue, the memory beast inside my head stops ravaging, kneels, and bows. Elisa’s calmness floods every neuron until every space between all and nothing is filled with her alone. The sensation is extraordinary. Everything inside at peace and everything outside at war. Mind, heart, maybe even soul—quiet. Body, blood, skin—aflame.

The vibrant purple of her eyes twinkles with the same wonder as it did at her thesis presentation yesterday, but her lashes don’t release their trademark melancholy for a second. Her hair is straight today. Like a sheet of black satin. I like her natural waves better but that’s not saying much. It’s like comparing one star to another and preferring the one to the left because it’s on the side of your heart.

Her clothes cling to her closely, not that I blame them. She is wearing a light blue sweater and dark jeans. Modern clothes seem out of place on her. Like Snow White or Elizabeth Bennett wearing something so common as denim. It is not until this thought occurs to me that I realize how truly unusual she is. Here is the most ubiquitous of all fabrics, looking redundant.   On second thought, every article of clothing on her is redundant.

Elisa is still standing by the door, examining me. For the first time, I have enough presence of mind around her to notice the scientist in her eyes. They are sharp and focused, with a laser quality as if they look beyond skin, to my very molecules and cells. She assesses me like I am the cause of whatever theory she is forming.   Strangely, I am unwilling to let her draw a conclusion yet. Not on so little. I step towards her, trying to look normal.

“Hello again, Miss Snow.” As I address her, I notice a strange phenomenon. I want to call her Elisa. Not just to say her name in vacuum, but to hear her respond to it.

“Good morning, Mr. Hale. This is a surprise,” she chimes in her silver-bell voice, but I am distracted but yet another epiphany. Apparently, I want her to say my name, too. Lunacy all around!

“Yes, it is,” I mutter, except my “surprise” has nothing to do with showing up in this lab. In fact, of all the revelations where Elisa is involved, my presence here is the least surprising and the most expected.

“Do you have any additional questions about my project?”

A reasonable assumption. But utterly wrong. Still, I can’t blame her for not guessing ‘are you here because you cannot sleep at night, because I am usurping your every thought, because I own you in parts of yourself you did not know you could be owned, and there is nothing you can do about it?’

“Not as such,” I answer instead. “But I’d like to speak with you for a few moments. I understand from your assistant that your schedule is flexible.”

“Sure. Let me just leave a note for Professor Denton and show Eric the timer.”

I smile at her “yes” to me. Her pink-rose blush colors her cheeks and she glides to Denton’s office. Eric has blanched completely, knowing that she is going after him next. Sure enough, she comes back in twenty seconds and smiles at him. He tries to smile back but it looks like he has a toothache. Good God, I hope I don’t look like that when I smile at her.

“Did you burn the protein?” she asks him quietly. Her gentle manners are wasted on Eric who grips the station desk with both hands for support.

“H-h-h-how did you know?” he manages.

Good question. How did she know? The poor bastard scrubbed that beaker spotless.

“Well, the lab usually smells like ethanol, with a trace of peppermint or cinnamon. Today, there’s no peppermint or cinnamon, but there is more alcohol and a hint of carbon dioxide. That makes me think that you burned the protein and disinfected the beaker with extra ethanol,” she whispers as if she is lullabying him to sleep. I suspect she is trying not to embarrass him in front of me.

Eric has forgotten to speak English altogether and just stares at her, mouth open. She laughs with a beautiful, Christmassy sound.

“Don’t worry. I burned mine when I first started, too. Here, you must remember to use this…” She is off in geek land, explaining to Eric how to use a specialized chronometer. Eric writes it all down but every few words or so, he gets lost on her face. Yes, buddy, I know. Brutal, isn’t it?

She gives him a last instruction, laughing and saying, “I’ve got my ion you.”

Her pun is lost on Eric who is staring at her without blinking. She pats him on the shoulder—Fucknuts gets a touch!—and dances towards me. Finally!

I open the lab door, relieved that I can move slightly better than Eric. She steps out with a smile playing on her lips. Those lips. I look away from them, forcing my eyes not to stray anywhere over her body. Definitely not her ass. Or the swell of her breasts that has tormented me for five days. I fail completely and stare anyway, half-entranced and half-furious at my adolescent reaction to this woman. It’s not until we reach the main doors—the bane of my existence—that I resurface from my ridiculous fantasies.

I open them for her, stepping carefully aside so that she is nowhere near my back. She walks through—oblivious to the danger—and I follow in a trance. Once outside, I scan the area. No one around, except Benson following from a distance. I sense Elisa’s eyes on my face and look back at her too eagerly. A small part of my brain registers that she is probably expecting me to say something instead of gawk at her like a pubescent moron.

“Is there a particular place you’d like to go?” I offer, but because I can’t really take her anywhere she wants, I ask about places that have private dining rooms. “The Nines or the Heathman? Andina?”

She smiles but something like regret lingers at the corner of her lips. “They all sound lovely but I need to be back soon. Eric is still learning how to use the bioreactor. Maybe Reed’s Paradox Café?”

Good God, Eric operates a reactor? “Sure. Although if a reactor is about to go off, Tour Eiffel may be safer.”

She smiles brilliantly, sadness all but gone from her lashes. Why is that? That’s another reason why I am here; to find out. To understand her. To see if I can break those barricade walls that go up in her eyes sometimes. But I remember her resistance to my prying all too well, so I start with easy questions.

“How did your finals go?”

“Fine, all,” she says, her lips twitching with a smile but then she frowns. “I mean… they went well, thank you.”

A hint of blush bursts along her hairline, and she keeps her eyes on her red shoes. Embarrassed? At what—her pun? I don’t know why; it’s adorable. She just gave the word “final” three fully appropriate meanings in one utterance. And she smiled, which means that school is a safe subject.

“Did you have a favorite class this year?”

“My thesis with Professor Denton.” She shrugs and instantly, the walls go up in her eyes. Hmm. Maybe school is not safe. What was the difference with this question? Maybe because college is over? Try it.

“Has Reed turned out to be everything it promised to be?”

She nods, but does not speak. Okay, we are getting close. New tactic.

“I noticed you liked Rubik’s cubes.”

Guards down. Dazzling smile. “Yes. They have a new one now with mirrors. It’s supposed to be really difficult.” Her eyes sparkle as though putting the brain through torturous puzzles is her idea of fun.

“How do you think Eric will do with the experiment when you’re done?”

Guards up. “He’ll do fine.”

Yes, something about her thesis and school ending. That has to be it. But for now, I slide my thoughts back to neutral, as I see Paradox Café approach. Because whether Elisa Snow calms me or not, I need my head in the game if I’m about to enter a public space. From the corner of my eye, I notice Benson closing some of the distance. He holds up three fingers discreetly, then taps his left hand. Three people inside, all to my left.

I open the café’s door for Elisa, fighting the tension of my shoulders. It is not as difficult as usual—probably because she is here, calming me with her sheer presence. And consequently, making me more dangerous because I’m not as vigilant.

The café is small—30 by 24. One fire exit in the back. A wall of windows. In the left, a gothic barista with a stud in his eyebrow. Next to him, wiping glasses, a bubbly waitress—corkscrew blond curls, sparkly eye shadow. And in the left corner, a hunched student is poring over a book called “The Black Athena,” his neck twitching at regular intervals like a nervous tick.

Safe. As safe as it can be with me here.

I feel Elisa’s scientist eyes on my face again and lead her quickly to a table in the far right corner. She can never see this part of me. I smile at her for good measure. For some reason, she blushes and looks away immediately, fixing her eyes on an unfinished chess game on the table. Four moves to checkmate for the white. As if I outlined them out loud, her eyes trace those very same four moves with practiced ease.

“Do you play?” I ask, fighting a jolt of ridiculous alacrity that we may have the ultimate game of strategy in common. When my brain is not occupied with mergers and acquisitions, it plays chess. The patterns tend to dull the memories and channel the mental energy to the least violent form of war.

“I used to. Not anymore though,” she speaks the words softly but the guards in her eyes become a fortress. Impenetrable.

“Why not?” I try to keep my voice even lest she withdraws more, if such a thing is possible.

It is.

“It’s a long story. What did you want to discuss Mr. Hale?” Even her voice has lost its silver bell sound. It is lower, like a muted piano key.

“I have time,” I press. As long as she wants. As long as it’s safe.

She looks at me as she did at her presentation. She does not speak but her eyes say it all. Please don’t ask me, she is begging. Abruptly, rage prickles at the edge of my conscience. I want to demand that she tell me everything because obviously something is wrong. But I am not sure what will hurt her more. To tell or not to tell?

From the corner of my eye, I see the corkscrew waitress approach our table. I tear my eyes from Elisa only enough to give my order. But the waitress is staring at me, eyes wide, cheeks flushed, mouth open. Ah, fuck! Not now. I raise my eyebrow at her. Nothing. I frown. Nothing. I cock my head to the side. Nothing. All right. I clear my throat. The waitress blinks and draws a breath. Thank Christ. I don’t need an admirer right now unless she is sitting across from me with purple eyes, spewing out puns.

“Hi! My name is Megan. What can I get you folks?”

I keep my eyes on Elisa. We are not together but strangely, I don’t want her to think I have any interest in Megan or any other woman. In fact, from the way the eidetic beast in my head is knocked out unconscious, it is highly unlikely I will ever have an interest in another woman again. Terrifying. If I could, I would leave now and never return.

“A hot chocolate, please,” Elisa orders with a smile as if the world is about to right itself at the prospect of chocolate. This simple order—something I can understand, a normal girl liking chocolate—gives me some hope that not everything about Elisa Snow is a puzzle requiring a physicist’s brain.

“And for you, sir?” Megan turns to me.

“An espresso doppio and a Pellegrino, no ice, no lemon,” I answer, making only as much eye contact as politeness strictly requires. Megan takes off. Excellent. But Elisa is pressing her lips together like she is trying to repress a smile.

“Something amusing?” I ask.

She frees her restrained smile. “I was just contemplating selling you some of my secret-formula skunk spray so you can repel all your admirers.”

I laugh—which in itself is a surprise. Of course she noticed Megan ogling. Of course she has such an invention. “And what is the going rate for this defensive weapon?”

“One million dollars,” she fires off without hesitation.

“Of course it is.” I laugh again, but not at the price. I laugh because I’d probably pay it.

For some reason, her eyes widen in response and she looks away. I am about to ask about her reaction, but Megan returns with our order. She gives the hot chocolate to Elisa who looks like she is praying for restraint not to snarf down the whole cup in one gulp. Possessed as I’ve become, this makes me laugh again. Megan sets the espresso cup and the water in front of me, her hands shaking, and runs off.

I turn to Elisa to ask my earlier question, or about her obvious chocolate obsession, or anything else, but she has other plans.

“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?”

Damn it. Always so eager to be done with me. Probably for the best. I cannot allow myself to be in her company—or to enjoy it for that matter. And I’m enjoying it a lot more than I should. I set down my cup of espresso—it’s too sweet—and get on with the program. The option that keeps her from picking up the gun.

“Are you the woman in my paintings?” I start.

I meant to ask only for confirmation but I might as well have fired a shotgun. Her body stills from her lashes to her knotted hands. She blanches and her mouth parts only slightly, whether to let air in or out, I don’t know. What the fuck have I done? I am about to tell her to forget about it—whatever my question triggered is not worth this dread—but in seconds, she is back to her masterful command. The guards in her eyes become a stronghold. Wall after wall rises up at some internal command. I have never seen a mind overpower emotion on its tracks like this. The only thing left behind is her patent sadness. Apparently no matter what her mind can conquer, it cannot overcome that. Whatever causes that melancholy, is beyond her strength or perhaps a part of her.

“Why would you ask me that?” Her voice is surprisingly strong, but her controlled delivery hints at a careful calculation underneath. I have hit a spot, but I don’t know if it is painful, scary, or simply private.

“I am a man of means, Ms. Snow,” I say quietly, not entirely sure how to handle this.

“What exactly does that mean?” The scientist is back. She will give nothing until she has her own answers.

That’s all right. I will give them to her if it calms her. I start explaining, keeping my voice soft because we are clearly in dangerous waters. “It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it. In this case, however, the conclusion was not hard to reach. I saw you at Feign’s gallery and the way the receptionist ordered you around indicated that you must work there. I obtained a copy of Feign’s personnel records and the only two women that have worked for him are blondes. You are the only one with dark hair and the woman in the painting of the neck has dark hair.”

“But the model does not need to be an employee. She could be anyone.” Still clinical, scientist voice.

Why is she insisting on this? Is she ashamed that she poses nude? Hmm… I had not considered that possibility. “Yes, she could be. But she is not. She is you.”

“If you have already reached this conclusion, why are you asking me about it?”

Beautiful question. And the most relevant. “To hear you confirm it, Miss Snow.”

“Why would my confirmation matter if you are convinced?” Her inscrutable eyes brighten slightly, and she cocks her head to the side as if the experiment just became interesting.

Her final query strips me bare but reveals nothing of her. Poor performance, Hale. Very poor performance. In four questions, she got to the heart of the matter, and in one week, you still know shit about her. Well, I might as well be honest.

“Because it will be a surrender, rather than a conquest.” I dissect her face but her control never slips.

“A surrender? Is that why you are here?”

“It’s one of the reasons. And before you try your distraction technique again, let me make it clear that I don’t intend to divulge the other reason for my visit until you have satisfied me on this point.”

She squints her eyes at the corners as if she is masterminding some other strategy.

“Admit it,” I say before she bests me again. I don’t know why it is suddenly so important to me that she admits the truth. Perhaps because this kind of subterfuge is so at odds with the virtue she has exuded from that very first sight of her. Or perhaps I want her to reveal something to me—something that she guards so closely.

“It seems that despite your impressive deduction skills, you have overlooked one possibility, Mr. Hale,” she finally says.

Oh no, Elisa! I most certainly have not. “Have I?”

“Yes. It is possible that there are different women for each painting.” She presses her denial. What is she hiding? Surely, it would be easier to just admit it so we can move on.

“There is only one woman, Miss Snow. And we both know who she is. But if you need more convincing, I’ll be happy to show you.”

Show me? How?” She says nervously.

I take advantage of this small chink in her armor, and lean across the small table into her space. At her proximity my mouth dries. For the first time in my life, I am hesitant to touch a woman. Not just any woman, but this woman. She is here, inches from me, with a clean scent of soap and roses, but I cannot make contact even though touching her is all I have thought about this week. This entire life, it seems. I know why. From the first moment I saw her painting, I have been afraid of defiling her. Still, captive, I hover my index finger close to her skin. My body responds with vengeance, as if this non-touch is the climax.

“Like this,” I say. “It’s your neckline. Your throat. Your collarbone.” My finger trails along the path with no contact. “I have no doubt, Ms. Snow, that if you take off this sweater and these jeans, I would see the same waistline, hipbone, and leg as in my paintings.”

I keep my eyes on hers, afraid that I will lose it all—especially my hesitation—and tear off her clothes right here, right now. Her body is tensed, coiled, and her eyes gleam with something like thrill and fear. If it were only fear in her irises, I would retreat. But that thrill—that spell-bound look—that illuminates her violets propels me forward.

“I can describe them to you if you wish. You have three dark freckles, positioned exactly like an equilateral triangle right above your left hip. They are the only marks on your skin. I would be more than happy to prove my case. Would you like me to or will you surrender?”

I only wanted her admission but at my words, something cellular happens. Her breathing shallows, her body braces as if to withstand a torrent within, and her pale-rose blush morphs into crimson—a color of life, so vibrant that it eclipses for once her shining violets. For any other woman, this would look almost like … well… frankly, arousal. But on her, this is … what is it? As if somewhere, in a mystical space in her veins, someone plugged in a cord, turned on a switch, or simply breached a dam and now her lifeblood is rushing through her, strong and implacable.

Astounded as I am by the process, I almost miss her body straighten a fraction as though synapses are finally talking to the flesh. Her skin takes on a subtle glow, and for the first time, the sadness vanishes from her eyes. Maybe relieved of the weight, her lashes flutter instantly as if she is shaking off sleep. The purple of her eyes changes. The bluish undertone turns indigo and burns with a fiery intensity until the only nuance left is a dark lilac or orchid, illuminating from within. She blinks once, twice… three times.

At her rose skin and vibrant eyes, I finally find a word for what I am seeing. More than bloom, more than life. An awakening. That’s what this is. And for some reason, I caused it.

Helpless, I watch her for an immeasurable moment—lost in my own emotions as much as hers. “Which will you choose, Miss Snow?” I whisper. Of all the options, I want the third now, so very, very badly.

She blinks again as if she returned from another world. She smiles at some thought, swallows once, and closes her eyes as if to stay in that other world a bit longer. When she opens them, they are still glowing.

“I surrender,” she whispers.

I know she means that she admits she is the woman in the painting. But this small victory somehow means more. It’s not her surrender, as much as it is her decision to let at least one guard down. And it belongs to me. Just like that vital moment of awakening. But before I congratulate myself too thoroughly, reality seeps through and I realize what she really decided. She chose not to argue, not to let me in. It was not a yes, Hale. It was a no.

The dejection should leave me winded but at least, in it, I find the silver lining. She chose not to pick up the weapon. For a moment, it was tempting. But in the end, she chose against it. And that’s a good thing.

“Safe decision,” I say, ignoring the mangled, terrifying ways in which my insides are twisting. I will deal with them on my own. But her intelligence at least prevailed. She is safe from me. I should leave now. Let her be. Move on with her life that is just starting. Earn a PhD or more likely ten. Invent a pill that cures cancer with one dose. Design a computer model that prevents wars. Brew some potion that stills eidetic memories. Or simply say “yes” to a nice, reasonably fit college professor, marry, and have enough children to deposit her DNA in this world’s genetic database.

For a blind moment, the beast does not conjure the past; it conjures the future. Elisa Snow—the way she was a moment ago, hectic spots of crimson on her cheeks, amethysts in her eyes, and fluttering lashes—dressed in white. Walking slowly down an aisle toward a faceless man. Why is that image so painful? So visceral? I don’t know this girl from Eve; she is not mine. But that’s precisely why. Because she is not mine. And can never be. The only place where she should belong to me is in a painting.

Noble plan, Hale. Now stick to it. I take a sip of my water and fix my eyes on her.

“That leaves only one question before we move on to my other reason for coming here today,” I say—noticing with some satisfaction that my voice is back to detachment. “Why did you lie about it?”

“I didn’t lie,” she says defensively.

“It’s a loose use of the word but you cannot deny that you were trying to cover the truth. Why?”

She squints her eyes—clearly, a habit of geniuses. Then, she stands straight and squares her shoulders.

“Because I was working illegally, Mr. Hale. My student visa does not allow me to work off campus. My brief hours of modeling have provided some much-needed income,” her voice is even, almost defiant.

Aha! So this is the issue, is it? She is just breaking the law. I am surprised by how unchanged she remains in my eyes. If this is what she needs to be well, I don’t give a flying fuck how many laws she breaks.

“I see,” I say, trying to keep my voice light. “That explains why there is so very little information about you anywhere.”

“You researched me?”

Researched? That’s an understatement. “As I said, I’m a man of means,” I say. “But I could not find much about you beyond your impressive academic credentials.”

She takes a deep breath as though this relieves her. “Yes, that would be CIS—the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service. They keep the records of foreign visitors strictly confidential,” she explains slowly

Well, that explains the nightmare that has been this last week. Benson will be relieved. I think he was beginning to worry he had lost his investigative touch. In truthfulness, I am relieved as well. Such a simple explanation. She is just not an American citizen, that’s all. Her paper trail belongs to a different arm of the government. The most impenetrable: homeland security.

“I must say, you’re unexpected Miss Snow. I thought you were an independent contractor, not an under-the-table worker. But don’t worry, I won’t turn you in,” I say, in case this is worrying her. I take a deep breath for the final piece. The piece that will allow me to keep her in some form. “In fact, that brings me to my next point. I’d like to hire you.”

Her mouth pops open in one of those rare unguarded expressions of hers. “Hire me?” she squeaks, as though this was the last thing she expected.

“Yes, indeed. And yes, I realize that would break the law. Apparently, I don’t care.” I only want you in the only form I should have you.

“But I have to finish my supplement first,” she stutters—all composure gone.

So naïve and innocent. It’s always about her supplement. “I’m not talking about your supplement. I’m talking about a painting. I’d like to hire you to model for a painting for my eyes only.”

Her eyes widen, in addition to her perfect O of a mouth. But her eyes are sparkling with some inner mischief. “What kind of painting? I don’t pose nude.”

Good! I’ve been driving myself insane with venom that Feign sees her naked. This small disclosure relieves me to no end and momentarily takes the sting off her earlier rejection. I smile. “What makes you think I want you to pose nude?”

Her skin explodes crimson again. “I’m sorry, I assumed that’s what you wanted because of the nature of the paintings you already bought. My mistake.” She keeps her eyes on her cup of hot—or maybe cold—chocolate, looking like she is praying for the ground to swallow her up.

“You assumed both right and wrong. If I were the artist, your reluctance against nudity would be a problem indeed. But since I am not, and you will have to pose in front of another man, I have no intention of commissioning a nude painting. Does that satisfy you?”

She blinks a few times while I panic that she will say no and leave me with nothing of her at all—nothing but my suddenly inadequate memory.

“Why should you care if another man sees me naked?” she says instead.

Okay, it’s not a “no.” But it is another question that asks too much of me and not enough of her. “I have pondered the question myself. For now, let’s just say that I like my art…unique. In fact, I plan to pay Mr. Feign a very handsome amount so that he does not paint you ever again.”

This is actually true. Her little mouth opens into another full O. The image is distracting, maddening so I press my case before I do something to that O. “I regret that this will cause you to be out of a job that you desperately need. I will compensate you on a fair trade commission, which would include the share of profits you should have received for your work.”

Her mouth closes. Thank God. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Hale,” she says haughtily, her chin jutting out. “But you don’t need to pay me. I still have my job at the lab and my student visa ends soon.”

Why would I deprive her of something she really needs? And why is she determined to fight me every fucking step of the way? Rage starts prickling again, so I fire off my first defense. Voice. “You seem to be under a misapprehension that this is a negotiation, Miss Snow, but it is not. I refuse not to pay you when I am the reason you will never pose for anyone ever again. And that’s the end of the discussion on this point.”

For most people, men or women, usually this cold tone is enough to trigger a natural warning to back off before my war defect burns them to ash. Does it work the same way on Elisa? Of course not. She stands up straighter, tilts her head to the side pleasantly, and smiles a seraphic smile that does not touch her eyes.

“Mr. Hale, you seem to have picked up on the same thing that Feign has: that some immigrants don’t have any bargaining power. You are unfortunately right, and you have me cornered because you know my secret. So I have no option but to agree. But make no mistake that, until your ultimatum, I was going to accept your offer with pleasure. But now, all you will get is the surrender you wanted. So let’s get down to business, shall we?”

What. The. Fuck. Rage floods my veins now, inexorable. My blood becomes gasoline, with a metallic, smoky taste in my throat. Instantly, my muscles lock down to stave off the onslaught. I have two, three minutes left. I play Fur Elise in my head, fixing my eyes on Elisa’s jawline, throat, skin, grappling to fend off the symptoms. Fifteen more seconds now. Ten. Five. I just need the smoke to leave my throat. Slowly, it wafts back into the pits of my mind, and I sense my throat relax enough to see reason in her stubbornness. To form words.

“I don’t view you as a second-class citizen, Miss Snow,” I say slowly. “But I suppose I can understand why my delivery would be offensive for someone in your circumstances. It was not my intent to make you feel used. My apologies.”

She gives me a brief nod. “Accepted.”

I take a deep breath as my blood cools as instantly as it ignited and the remnants of fire settle deep in my stomach. Quickly, I turn the subject to lighter topics. “Now, about the business details. I’d like you to model in my home.” Yes, I need her there. Once. Only once. Enough to fuse the place with her calmness. And maybe enough for me to find out what is haunting her and end it.

“That’s fine,” she says, draining the last dregs of her hot chocolate from the cup.

“And I don’t want just glimpses of your body. I want all of it, including your face.”

The cup shakes in her hand and she sets it back down. “I don’t know why but okay.”

Ah! Even Elisa Snow has insecurities. This should make me feel better. It should make me feel like I’m sitting next to a normal, comprehensible human girl that I can decode, help, and let go. But instead, it sets this odd indigestion-type ache in my chest. “You don’t know why?” I ask her.

“No, not really. But it’s okay. You don’t have to give me some speech about how I really am beautiful and don’t see myself clearly.”

This is unusual. In my experience, about 80% of people—men or women—will press the issue, looking for reassurance. They will say things like “Look at me,” “I’m not that interesting,” “No, I don’t know why.” Elisa Snow discards it altogether. Is it because nothing will assure her? “It seems you are familiar with that speech,” I probe gently.

“Yes, and frankly it never works for anyone. It would be better if we used our time productively.”

Yes, of course. God forbid we are being inefficient. But what if I really could erase her insecurities? What if I told her exactly how she makes me feel? Would that flatter her, or terrify her? Probably terrify her.

“What would you like me to wear?” Elisa interrupts my thoughts, blushing of course.

Nothing. “My shirt.”

More crimson, more violet in her eyes. “And what else?”

Me. “Nothing else. Just my shirt.”

Her empty cup rattles in her hand and she sets it back down again. Then she picks it back up. “Will the shirt be open or buttoned?”

Oh, Elisa, your brain is failing you at this moment. There is only one answer to that question. “Open,” I mouth, enjoying her reaction.

She swallows hard. For once in our five-day-long history, I have slightly more control than she does. “Umm…,” she starts, her eyes flitting to my glass of water and then back at her empty cup. “That might be a problem with the no-nude rule.” Another peek at my water. “I’d feel more comfortable if I could keep my knickers.” She bows her head completely.

I almost laugh. I almost rip her off her orange velvet armchair and across the table onto my lap. Almost. A very close almost. But I know very well what would happen if I did that; eventually she will get hurt. Not to mention that her hands are shaking and gripping that damn cup so tightly with nerves that I take mercy on her and back off.

“Okay, knickers,” I concede, but it feels like too much to give up so I tack on a condition. “But I get to pick them.”

She nods so fervently that her black hair flops over her forehead. “Thank you,” she says, like I threw her a life raft at her while she is overboard.

I want to tease her about what kind of knickers she would like, what is she wearing right now, should we buy the entire Agent Provocateur or choose them together? Except there are three problems. One, my own jeans—loathsome fabric. Two, I truly don’t think she could take it. If this girl has slept with more than one or two men, I will volunteer for another deployment. Three, none of that will ever happen between us.

“That’s it,” I relent. “Unless you want to talk price.”

She shakes her head vigorously again. Apparently, she cannot even bring herself to speak this time. I take advantage and move on to questions for which I need her unguarded. The questions that will hopefully give me some answers. Truths that are personal to her, that are vintage Elisa.

“Now, I’d like the same color and style as the rest of the paintings but before I hire Feign, I need some information from you.”

Still crimson in the cheeks. “What kind of information?”

Question Number One, which I shouldn’t ask but fuck it. “Are you sleeping with Feign?”

Her eyes widen and the crimson spreads to her neck. I don’t blame her—the question was rude. “No, I am not.”

Excellent. Question Number Two. “Incidentally, are you with someone else?”

A little crease between her eyebrows, but still crimson. “No.”

I relax and lean back in the chair, which is starting to feel a tad too comfortable. “Then, I will discuss the schedule with Feign and get back to you.”

Her little crease becomes a full frown—a very cute, attractive frown. “Why would you not hire Feign if I was with him or someone else?”

Fuck, we are back to me. Not a chance. She is not getting the upper hand again. I just broke her down. “I don’t want you distracted, Miss Snow. And I certainly don’t need to invite the ire of a jealous boyfriend. It wouldn’t end well for him.” It most certainly wouldn’t.

“I guess that makes sense,” she mumbles, but her eyes squint at the corners. I press on with my questions before she changes topics from herself again.

“Do you go back to England often?”

She looks up almost startled. “No.”

“What about your parents? Are they in England?”

It was supposed to be an easy question. A simple one that keeps her violin voice in the air. But one look at her face and I realize now my mistake. All my mistakes with her. I know her answer before she gives it. I know it in the way her eyes zoom in and out of focus like mine do when I remember Marshall. In the way, her mouth parts to let air in because she has no strength to breathe it on her own. In the way all crimson blanched from her face. In the way her lips move like she is counting.

For a moment, I want to tell her not to answer. I want to take this whole morning back and cancel the painting, even give up the few moments of peace she gives me. Just so I don’t have to see that look on her face. But she speaks before I do.

“My parents have passed away, Mr. Hale,” she whispers, keeping her eyes on her cup of cold chocolate.

It’s even worse in her breathless whisper. What can I tell her? What can I do? How arrogant I was to think I could fix whatever haunts her. There is nothing I can do to end this for her. Nothing to replace the void she feels. If I know anything from the hair in my head to the heels of my feet is that.

“I’m very sorry,” I say, wishing I could take her hand. My words are inadequate so I add, “And I’m sorry I asked. I had no idea.” I am sorry for more things than that . . . sorry that I’m here in the first place, which is bad enough. But that I’m inflicting myself even deeper in the life of someone who has no protectors, that’s truly inexcusable.

“No need to apologize,” she says, her voice gaining some strength. “There can be no fault when the intention is kind.”

Oh yes, there can, Elisa. Believe me when I say, there can. “Do you have siblings?” Please say yes.

“No.”

As alone as she can get. “I’m an only child myself. I sympathize.”

She smiles. “I went through a stage where I would draw my brother and sister. My parents had to endure the stick figures at the dinner table for several months.”

I smile, too, because that’s obviously what she wants. “I should have given that a try. It might have made me less selfish.”

“Most kind people think of themselves as selfish, I have noticed.”

I force another smile, racking my brains for a way to fix this. For something that will improve her life even if it will never fill a void. For the strength to leave her alone. For anything…

“What about your parents?” she probes.

“They’re vacationing in Thailand for the next month. My father, Robert, is an architect; my mother, Stella, an editor,” I answer quickly—I cannot flirt with triggers at this moment. “Why did you leave England?”

She shrugs. “After my parents’ car accident, I needed a fresh start. I’d always heard the States were immigrant-friendly. So, here I am.”

She puts on a good show. Or maybe she really believes it. But at least she is talking. Maybe that helps? “This must have been very difficult for you.”

A small smile. “I’ve had my moments. It’s better now though. I miss them still, but I have done my best to keep parts of them alive. Like the nutritional supplement that my dad was so keen on. Most days, I just feel really lucky to have had such unconditional love even for a short while.”

“Well, from what I’ve seen, they would be really proud.” If there is one thing she has to know, it must be this.

“Thank you. I’d like to think so,” she whispers, lowering her eyes and fixing them on her cup. I bend my head to meet them but she does not look up.

She starts fidgeting with the wristband of her watch—a 1970s Seiko with a wide, round face and sturdy leather strap, clearly made for a man . . . A man from the 1970s. A father. At the realization that indigestion-like ache starts brewing inside my chest again.

“Yes, this was my dad’s,” she volunteers. She must have noticed me looking at it. “I know it’s masculine but I can’t imagine wearing something else.” Her voice is wistful and her eyes drift to my own watch. A fucking Audemars Piguet. Why did I have to wear it? I place my hand on my thigh almost casually.

“No need to hide your James Bond watch, Mr. Hale,” she smiles—reading straight through me. Of course, I was not being particularly subtle. “Trust me, orphans don’t like making others uncomfortable. On the contrary, I’m happy for you.” Her voice is fervent again, unquestionable. In that tone, I realize another layer to Elisa Snow. She is good—kind. The most underestimated quality in human beings, and she has it. Others might feel resentment at what they lack and become stingy with others. She seems to draw genuine happiness from the fact that only she had to bear the ugly brunt of fate.

“Your parents must be proud, too,” she says, with a brilliant smile.

It’s instant. The image of my mother’s broken body on the floor implodes in my vision. Her splayed legs, her right arm twisted off its socket as her other hand reaches weakly for my face. My hands—my own hard, war-callused, hateful hands—wrapped around her throat. And her whisper gasping over the gunfire blaring in my ears: “Aiden…it’s me… it’s mom… I love you… your father loves you… you are good… you are g-g-good, s-s-son… we… l-l-l-ove you…”

But then a musical voice—louder, closer—breaks through my mother’s pleas, almost nonsensical. “If I ever sell my supplement, I’ll send you a picture of my Audemars.”

Elisa speaks hesitantly, her words like the melody she must be named after.

As instantly as it started, the memory reel slows down. Still photographs now, not a fast-backward film. But I still hear gasps and mortar fire. I still smell my mother and IED smoke. I force myself to see only Elisa’s face. Her sunny smile still lingers on her lips, but her beautiful orchid eyes have dimmed, probably in concern for whatever terror slipped out of my own. The gunfire stops blaring; my mother no longer pleads. My eyes fix on Elisa’s jawline—that flawless first part of her I saw in that painting. Adrenaline recedes; my muscles start unlocking. Blood cools in my veins. And at last, air flows in my lungs. Clear, moist, with a faint scent of soap and roses.

Elisa smiles again, her eyes never leaving mine—clueless of the storm she just silenced, of the balm she layered over me, of the peace she weaves.

I force a smile back and lock my muscles again. Not from memories this time but because my body wants to slump forward until my face is buried in her hair. Perhaps if I breathed only her, I’d be healed and flashbacks like this will go away forever. Perhaps if I gave her the world, the world would make some place for me.

She’s waiting for me to say something—barely seconds have passed in her normal mind while mine lived in three time periods and places at once.

“Or maybe you’ll find yourself winning the lottery, Miss Snow.” How shallow my words sound for what she really deserves. For what I’d really pay. But how I can tell that I would gladly give everything—every penny I own, every day I have left in this non-life of mine, in exchange for one day—no, one hour—completely free from the ravages inside my head?

She meets my eyes for a long moment—there is no question of me looking away. Now or ever. As I stare at her, I know I will look at this girl—the only girl in the world who has calmed me—for the rest of my life. She will move on after my painting. She will go to Harvard, cure cancer, save other men. She will fall in love, marry, have children. She will age, her mind will slow down, and her memories will fade. She may return to England for her final days. And when that last breath comes for her, it will be in beauty. Exactly as it should be, Elisa. Exactly as it should be.

She might once or twice remember she posed for a strange man. She might wonder what he did with her painting. She will never tell her husband, but she will tell her daughter or her friend. But with time, she will forget his name, or the way his eyes fixed on her as though she was the only sight left. She will forget him in the end, never knowing that her painting will always hang in his bedroom. That she will be the first and last thing he will see every day. That her face will be the avatar he will summon against every flashback, every abyss. That she will be his medicine until his very end. Exactly so, Elisa. Exactly so.

She speaks at last in her wind-chime voice. “You can call me Elisa, Mr. Hale. Or Isa.”

I swallow once, as if to clear my mouth for her name. For the name I’ve wanted to say out loud since I saw her this morning. For the name I might say on my final breath if I want peace.

“Elisa.”

She smiles in response. It’s so beautiful—almost, almost carefree—that I nearly say her name again but abruptly her smile disappears and she bolts to her feet.

“I’d better go,” she says quickly. “I have a lot of information to download on poor Eric.”

Eric? Ah, Fucknuts. It takes a second to recall the rest of the ordinary world. Yet somehow I don’t think he is the real reason she is leaving. Did she see the monster in my eyes? I hope she did. I hope she didn’t. Go Elisa! Go. She should leave. She has to leave. Every minute she spends with me is a minute she is in danger. I know that…but like an addict, I try to hold on to her a few more seconds.

“I’ll walk you to the lab, Elisa,” I say her name again, leaving some money on the table and waiting for her to lead the way.

She does, and I follow blindly in her wake, unsure if I am going toward something or running from it.

©2016 Ani Keating

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FRESH-FICTION INTERVIEW WITH AIDEN HALE, GIVEAWAY, EXCERPT & NEWS

Hello everyone! Happy Saturday! Got some goodies for you and hope you love them!

1.  FreshFiction (yep, that awesome FreshFiction) is doing an exclusive interview with Aiden today, where he gives hints on the sequel and answers your questions.  Many of you submitted questions for Aiden and we tried to answer as many as we could that wouldn’t spoil the sequel or that kept the interview within word limits. Here is a sneak peak (with Gandy as Aiden even though he’s wearing a suit, because, why not?)and you can read the full one here

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Ani Keating: (plopped on a beanie bag at an undisclosed location, wearing flannel pajamas.) Hey Aiden, thank you for coming here today.

Aiden Hale: (sitting in a winged armchair, ankle over his knee, wearing torn up jeans instead of the customary charcoal suit, and glaring at Ani with wrathful eyes.) I didn’t do it for you. I’m doing it for your readers.

AK: I know, I know—you’re mad at me because of what I did in THIRTY NIGHTS. But really, don’t you think it’s best if people face their worst fears in the end?

AH: (attractive snort) No!

AK: How can you not agree with that?

AH: Very simple. Your theory is making the person I love the most in the world suffer. I have no respect for any principle or author that causes her pain.

AK: I’m assuming you’re talking about Elisa.

AH: I’m assuming that’s not a serious question.

Continue reading here 🙂

2. FreshFiction is running a giveaway for Thirty Nights and have created an exclusive page for it. It will be up for four days.  Another signed copy of Thirty Nights — get them before they run out. I’m almost out of author copies now.  Enter the FreshFiction giveaway here

3. Excerpt & News: As some of you know, Samhain Publishing, my publisher has decided to close its doors. Although this saddens me because they were a great publisher, I want to assure you that NINETY DAYS – the sequel – is still on and it will still come out this year (hopefully Spring). THIRTY NIGHTS will continue to be on sale during the wind-down process, and after that, I will make sure it remains available as well.  Below is a tiny excerpt from the sequel–more will follow soon.

NINETY DAYS EXCERPT

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I fling my eyes open, feeling a gust of warm, cinnamon-scented breath on my neck. He’s here. He’s here. A cloud of body heat rises around me, melting all ice, fueling all fire. I turn to find him but the only thing standing out in the darkness are his sapphire eyes. They stir and brew as his trademark tectonic plates shift along with his memories. 

“Aiden?” I gasp, his name whooshing like a spurt of life.

He’s here. He’s here. He holds both of his hands open, as though he is trying to show me something invisible. The sapphire light of his eyes fractures on his skin, emitting an Aurora Borealis. He does not smile but his irises darken. He leans his forehead against mine and closes his eyes.

“Be happy,” he murmurs.

Can you guess what this is? – Love you all and be back with more.  xo Ani

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Happy Heart Day!

All my love to my readers everywhere today! I can’t believe it’s Valentine’s Day already. I hope yours is filled with the best, sexiest love stories of all: our own. And to add some to that love, here are two little gifts for you:  1) A teaser for the sequel—Ninety Days; and 2) A Giveaway that I’m running with my publisher, Samhain.  Two $5 Amazon gift cards, for two winners. All you have to do is tweet today and tomorrow what Aiden should get Elisa for Valentine’s Day today, and use the hashtag #thirtynights. Copy me, and voila!  I will enter you to win the card so you can discover even more love stories. Enjoy playing and reading! See you soon (I’m in a wee bit of a rush because I have to finish a sequel chapter today and cook with hubby-two loves in one.)

CHAPTER 1

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FLIGHT
(This chapter has not been edited. It may appear in a different form in the published novel)

Every airplane hurtling across the sky carries goodbyes. Some for days, some for life. Then there is mine—the unknown kind.

I stare out of the Plexiglas window into dense darkness. It’s midnight back in Portland. Did Reagan make it home safe? Is she curled up on my bed, still crying? And Javier—does he even have a bed in his jail cell? Or is he slumped on the floor, staring at darkness just like me? I leave the hardest person for last . . . him . . . Aiden Hale, I force myself to think the name. Is he awake? Or finally asleep—relieved to have me out of his life?

A burning pain—part rage, part agony—flares like a livid wound between my lungs, and I close the window shade. The businessman next to me is snoring softly. I avoid looking at his charcoal suit—so similar to Aiden’s when they hung closely with my dresses. The wound throbs again, and I gaze at the crumpled note still in my hand. Aiden’s right-hand man, Benson, scribbled it on a torn piece of paper like he was out of time.

Elisa,

I am breaking Mr. Hale’s rules by giving you his letters in hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.

Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life.

Benson

I have the words memorized, but they still seem scrambled. Alone they make sense, but together they mean nothing. What does Benson know about my mistakes? About our regrets?  What rules is he breaking? Why? What’s the difference between the man I know and the one I heard today?

I know the answer to that last one. Aiden Hale—the man I thought I knew, the man I loved—would have never reported Javier to the immigration police. He would have never ruined my little family. He would have never hurt someone I love. But the man he truly is—the man I saw today with finally clear eyes—did all of that, and admitted it three times.

The burning ache rages up my throat, constricting it until I can’t breathe. I loosen my scarf, searching for air. It blows in a steady gust from the airplane vent. Straight into the center of my forehead. Where Aiden’s lips rested last. Where my father’s lips rested always.

I lift my face toward the vent and draw a huge gulp of pressurized air. In, out. Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.008, helium, 4.002, lithium, 6.94—

“Miss? May I get you anything?” A hushed feminine voice murmurs next to me.

I turn to the flight attendant, trying not to look at her Union Jack scarf that reminds me of Reagan and her obsession with all things British. “Some coffee, please,” I whisper.

Her eyebrows arch—coffee is not the drink of choice at this hour—but she scurries back to the galley for the pot.

I know this is a mistake. I know I should try to sleep. It would be easier to shut down, drift into a different place, a different time. Perhaps I would be back in Portland again. On the couch with Reagan, listening to Lana Del Rey. Or in Javier’s studio, looking at his paintings. Or perhaps in a rose garden, tangled under the blooms with the Aiden I loved, not the one I discovered today.

Yes, it would be easier to sleep, but I cannot. Because if I sleep, this day will be over.  If I sleep, this will be the last day in my home, the last time I saw my family, the last time I held my best friend, the last time I was in love. And when I wake up, everything I have will be yesterday. It will be the past.

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Thirty Nights Outtake: The Snow Express (with art from Beauty and the Beastly Books)

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2016 is off to a great start. Mine has been crammed with…. you guessed it, Ninety Days.  But I always have a little nostalgia lingering after the holidays, and before they are completely forgotten I thought I would post this outtake from Thirty Nights.

At the time a version of this chapter was posted online, I was astonished at how many fans it had. I thought it was Christmas cravings, but the feeling withstood throughout the year. So here it is, in a final nod to the most wonderful time of the year.  The beautiful cover art is courtesy of the talented Carol Sales from Beauty and the Beastly Books Blog. Enjoy and check out her blog as well for some great new recommendations!

*Mature Audiences Only*

SNOW EXPRESS

May 22, 2015
(three days after Aiden’s Alone Place)

“I have to do some work for a couple of hours,” Aiden says after dinner, caressing my cheek. My heartbeat stutters at his martyred expression and the tone of his voice. Beneath the husky musicality, there is some hesitation. As though a part of him doesn’t want to leave me even for a short while.

But I know better now. I know the part of him that doesn’t want to leave is small—just a pinprick of light in his vast, dark depths. The rest of him would stay away from me in the blink of an eye if it meant that I was safe.

Safety has never sounded more dangerous.

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“You know, work is overrated for billionaires,” I say, gripping him to me.

He smiles. “Everything is overrated about billionaires. Especially the billionaires themselves.” I’m about to start defending at least one billionaire, but he tips my face up so he can see my eyes. “Seriously, will you be okay for a while?”

The truthful answer—pathetic as it may sound—is “no”. I will miss him every minute of those bloody two hours. Two hours are long for someone who has only 22 days left. But at least I have some sneaky plans to keep me occupied.

“I’ll be great,” I answer. “You go work. I’ll hang out with Cora and call Reagan.”

The faithful V forms between his eyebrows, and he bends his seraphic face to kiss the corner of my lips. “You know, it feels long to me too,” he whispers. “But—”

“Don’t tell me the but part,” I murmur and kiss him hard. He kisses me back in his urgent, demanding way, perhaps finishing his sentence with his tongue, instead of words. When he pulls away, we are both breathless.

“I was going to say, ‘but I’ll work from the library, so I’m not very far.’” He grins at his trick, and taps my nose twice.

I try to come up with some clever response but I can’t speak from the warm bubble parachuting in my chest. I don’t have him for forever, and I may not have him even for 22 days, but I do have him tonight. And I will do my damnedest to make it a great night. A night he will remember not because of his memory, but because he wants to.

“I like that you won’t be far,” I finally manage. “And if you’re very lucky, I may even interrupt you… there’s no telling whether I’ll be wearing clothes or not.”

He laughs his carefree, waterfall laughter. “I’m rarely that lucky.” And with another kiss, he sweeps out of the kitchen, the lights flickering at his passage.

The moment I hear the library door close behind him, I sprint to Cora’s apartment for my Christmas plans. Somewhere deep in my brain, I wonder whether it really is such a good idea to celebrate the holidays early together in case my visa doesn’t come through. Is there a better way to invite bad luck than to celebrate it? I almost trip in terror but then remember Dad’s words from ages ago: luck favors those who don’t fear it.

I skid to a stop at Cora’s door and knock. She opens it immediately with a big smile.

“Isa, hi, come on in!”

Cora’s apartment is clean and all white, with punches of hot pink and royal blue. But the first thing I notice is not the color; it’s the warmth. Cora keeps her apartment at least ten degrees warmer than Aiden keeps the rest of the house. I know it’s because ever since the desert, he doesn’t like heat. Still, it is nice to have warm toes while wrapping presents.

“Here,” says Cora. “I have everything set up and ready to go.” She leads me to the corner of her living room where on a round, dining table are my Christmas ornaments, a new stocking for Aiden, and neat bundles of twinkling lights.

“Cora, you bought more lights!” I pretend to scold.

She laughs. “I couldn’t resist. This is fun for us too.” She rubs her hands together like it really is Christmas in May.

“Did Benson manage to find a tree?” I grin, sitting at the dining table and curling my legs under me.

“Oh yes, you just wait ‘til you see it—it’s beautiful. Benson’s hidden it in the back woods so Mr. Hale doesn’t see it.”

“Good idea. We can bring it all in after Aiden goes to bed. Are you sure he doesn’t suspect anything?”

“Not a thing. Benson said he was very distracted all day trying to close a deal he’s working on and yelling at Bob’s immigration team to hurry up.”

Lunatic that I’ve become, the image of the Dragon breathing fire makes me smile. But only because it’s for my benefit.

“Okay, now here are your frames and the rest of your things,” Cora says, uncovering a clear plastic bin under the table. “I’ll go clean up in the kitchen and keep an eye on Mr. Hale.”

After she leaves, I look at the universe of my treasures that I have carried with me for the last four years. They look ridiculously small—shabby even—compared to what Aiden did for me at his Alone Place. Most of the Aeternum roses are now in Denton’s lab, undergoing geraniol extraction. But some are sprinkled throughout the house, even here on Cora’s dining table.

Yes, my gifts are not much compared to his, but they are all I have. I start scrawling, cutting, gluing, and printing for almost two hours.

In a way, giving Aiden anything that belongs in a frame is silly. With his memory, he does not need pictures—he has none anywhere as far as I’ve seen. But that’s why this is important. I am noticing that although he remembers everything, he has difficulty connecting the memories in a positive way. His mind remembers moments, but his self-loathing and guilt connects them in the most savage, self-destructive way. In short, brilliant though he is, Aiden misses the forest for the trees, the frame for the photos. And with this present, maybe he will see a new way to connect the moments that have brought us together… that are making us, us.

I stare at the finished gifts—how much we have done together in such a short time! Uncovered secrets, saved dreams. It’s hard to believe—looking at all these moments—that there isn’t something better for us. That we are racing toward the end and not the beginning.

I don’t know how long I sit here—lost in the future for once, rather than the past—but eventually, a beep from iPhone jolts me back.

Cora: Mr. Hale is roaming the halls. Hurry! 🙂

I laugh at her smiley face, and sprint to Aiden’s temporary bedroom with only twenty seconds to spare. By the time I rip off my clothes and sprawl naked across the bed, he opens the door.

“There you are—” he starts but then his mouth freezes open into a perfect O. His sentient eyes widen and gaze at me so intensely that my entire skin explodes crimson. From my cheeks to my pinky toe. Still, I don’t look away. His Christmas starts tonight even if he doesn’t know it.

At length he closes his mouth, swallows hard, and speaks—his voice low and husky. “I thought you forgot me.”

I shake my head, keeping my eyes on him. “Haven’t we established that that’s impossible?”

He smiles and saunters to me, slowly. On each step, he takes off his T-shirt, and then his socks, and then his jeans. By the time he towers over me, he is only wearing his snug, grey boxers. He lies on top of me without complexities, without elaborate set-ups. Just his heated skin covering every inch of mine.

He leans close, his lips to my ear. “That’s the beauty about your memory,” he whispers. “For you, forgetting is possible.”

“Not if I don’t want to forget,” I answer and bring his mouth to mine. Still, for now, I do forget everything—the ticking clock, his demons, my Christmas plans, Cora and Benson still awake—and focus only on this moment and the way Aiden’s mouth molds with mine. His tongue dancing a slow, carnal rhythm with my own. His hot lips scorching fiery trails over my skin. His strong hands carving new paths over my breasts, my waist, my hips. And our bodies soldered together without space for anything else but each other.

In the afterstorm, we lie there, my body buzzing from within, the sound of our harsh breathing filling the air. Aiden rests his head on my chest as our lungs stabilize and slow down. I wonder vaguely if we are drifting into sleep and how special that would be—us sleeping in the same bed, legs tangled in knots, maybe fighting for the most blanket. I’d let him have it all. If he would only sleep with me.

“I like the sound of your heart,” Aiden murmurs—his voice slightly hoarse. He looks up, his eyes now the calmest of Mediterranean blue. “It calms me, like you. I listened to it on our first night… after you fell asleep.”

The heart in question starts thundering loudly—very pleased with itself. He smiles and rests his head on my chest again, listening. Every time his lips touch me or his fingertips brush my skin, my heart tries to break out of my chest. We talk now and then… about his work, about my dreams if I get my green card, about our favorite places in Portland and favorite foods. I learn that, like me, he hates TV but really likes public radio. His favorite book is Brothers Karamazov as well. He, too, loves the Portland food carts and orders take-out every Wednesday. He is an undefeated Trivial Pursuit champion—figures!—but his real interest is chess. I melt as I discover how much we have in common. More than just troubled pasts and inner pain. Even without those, we’d still fit together, simply because we were born that way. Albeit two worlds and fifteen years apart.

At length, his voice deepens and slows, as does mine. On any night, I’d stay here, hoping in vain that he’d forget about sleeping apart. But not tonight. Tonight, I have a turkey to roast. “I better let you sleep,” I finally say, caressing his cheek. “You’ve had a long day.”

His arms tighten around me, and his eyes still as though he is imagining something. But before I can ask, the tectonic plates shift and his arms loosen. “It’s safer this way,” he murmurs, kissing me one last time.

I nod, fighting the chilly emptiness that surges up my spine.

“You believe me, don’t you?” he presses as if he can sense it. “You know this is just for your safety.”

“I know,” I sigh, kissing his scar. I can’t argue with his motivation. Not to mention that if I did, he’d feel even worse about all the normal things I’ll be missing if I stay with him. Hideous thought.

“Come on, I’ll tuck you in,” I say, unraveling myself from his arms and legs. He grins and watches me as I throw the comforter over him and switch off the light.

“Sweet dreams, Elisa.”

“No dreams, Aiden.”

That’s the best wish for Aiden’s sleep—he can never trust his dreams. I listen to his low chuckle for a moment after I close the bedroom door. I love you, I think, then shuffle to his real bedroom to put on my pajamas and wait until he is fast asleep.

Benson and Cora find me in the living room about half hour later, Benson carrying a huge Douglas fir that dwarfs even him. They have already strung the lights on it—hopefully they were busy with that and didn’t hear our sexcapades.

We secure the fir in a deep pot by the piano, and plug in the lights. A soft glow illuminates the massive glass wall, casting long, cheerful shadows on the polished hardwood floor. I watch entranced as the isolation of Aiden Hale cracks a little. From Benson’s slack mouth and Cora’s misty eyes, they might be thinking the same thing.

“Thank you,” I tell them, staring at the twinkling lights woven in the branches. “I couldn’t done this without you two.”

To my surprise, Cora gives me a hug. Benson clears his throat, which I think means “don’t mention it,” and turns around to string more lights along the glass wall.

“Oh, come on, Benson,” Cora teases. “Turn around—I know you’re choking up. You’re the biggest softie there is. And I mean that literally.”

“Will you two keep down the giggles?” Benson pretends to hiss but he still doesn’t turn around. “The man sleeps with one eye open. He’ll wake up and catch us here, looking like idiots.”

The two of them razz each other as we hang the ornaments that Reagan and I have accumulated over the years. Cora and I stream a garland over the fireplace and I hang Aiden’s stocking where I’ve spelled Dragon in sparkly dust. After Benson plugs in the last string of lights and Cora fluffs the Santa pillows, we step back and look at our handiwork. It still looks like Aiden’s home, but without the loneliness. It looks cheerful, as though you’d expect laughter and old-world music from each corner.

“Isa, are you sure you don’t want me to help with the cooking?” Cora says. “I’m having too much fun. We’ve never had holidays her—” She stops abruptly as though she said one sentence too many.

But it’s too late. My body absorbs her words faster than my mind does, and a chill runs up my spine in shock. “Never?” I whisper.

Cora shakes her head, her lips pressing together as if to block any other disclosures.

“Why not?” My question sounds almost like a sob. Surely his parents must come here or Marshall or his other Marine friends… But just as I think this, I understand. Yes, his parents would want to come. As would his friends. But would Aiden let them? Would he ever risk their lives for himself? I know the answer to that one. No, he wouldn’t.

Benson and Cora watch my face as though my thoughts are written there in capital, bold letters. Neither of them says a word—perhaps worried they have already said too much.

“So… so what does he do for Christmas? For New Year’s? Is he all alone?” I whisper, my hand flying to my mouth as though it doesn’t want the words to become real. But I know they must be. Here I have been these last four years, missing my parents so much at Christmas that the pain felt like an iron hand choking me every minute until the holidays were over. But at least I had the Solises and Reagan, when just up the hill from me, surrounded in wilderness and cold glass, a man who has fought for his own land—who is better than the sum of all my best parts—sat alone, missing people that are still alive. How can he stand it? How has it not killed him for the last twelve years? Does he see the ones he loves in every twinkly light and miss them in every ticking second?

A sob builds in my chest and I shudder. What have I done by planning Christmas? Am I going to bring him pain tomorrow instead of good memories? How many years will this little whim of my fantasy cost him?

“Cora!” I choke out, hot tears welling in my eyes. “Benson! We have to take all this down. We have to get rid of it, right now. Oh, how could I have been so stupid?”

Cora and Benson flit to my side, Cora taking my hands. “Isa! No, don’t you say that,” Cora whispers urgently, squeezing my hands like Reagan does. “You’re not stupid. This is the best thing for him, sweetheart. Oh, I wish I hadn’t say anything!”

“H-h-how can it be the best thing for him?” I shudder again, trying to swallow the sobs. “Cora, he h-hurts on Christmas. No, no—we have to bring this down. ”

Cora starts to explain but at that moment, Benson’s arm comes around my shoulders—my knees buckle under the weight. “If he hurts on Christmas it’s not because of Christmas. It’s because he’s alone. But now he doesn’t have to be. Now he has you. So why take that chance from him, hmm?” Benson’s gentle eyes are crinkly at the corners, and he’s watching me like I might break.

“Yes, yes, good point Benson!” Cora nods feverishly. “Isa, sweetheart, if I had a coin for every time I wished his parents and friends didn’t listen to him and broke through that door, I’d be richer than Mr. Hale. But they can’t do that because they know their presence alone brings him pain. But with you, it’s different. He only has good memories with you. Listen to Benson. Don’t take that away from Mr. Hale without at least trying.”

I sniffle, trying to find some sense in what they’re saying but the terror of hurting him is too strong for logic. “But who am I to do this for him? I’ve known him five minutes! If his parents and friends respect his choice, who am I to presume I’ll be different and make him happy?”

Benson smiles and pats my shoulder three times—my knees buckle again on each pat. “You’re the only woman he wants. That’s gotta count for somethin’, eh?”

It does—it counts for a lot. It counts for the warmth that radiates in my chest at Benson’s words, for the weak flickering of hope that glimmers now and then, but it doesn’t count enough to cause Aiden pain even for a minute.

“Isa, sweetheart,” Cora continues with a small smile. “Every couple that has so much going against them must be meant to be together. Or else why would the universe bother?”

Because there is no such thing as universe conspiracies, I want to say. But I want to believe her words too much to argue with her.

“Don’t let them win,” she urges, sensing my weakness. “Be a little selfish!”

“Yes, exactly—be selfish on Christmas,” Benson says, shaking my shoulder and making my teeth rattle.

I smile at his enthusiasm—at their eager faces and nervous smiles. And somewhere in their words, I see their logic. There is such a thing as too much selflessness. Aiden too selfless to allow me in his life, and I too selfless to push him. Is that the trouble here?

“Come on, Isa,” Cora says in a final tone, seeing my decision before I make it. “I’ll help you with the turkey. And maybe some steak too. If there is one thing that always puts Mr. Hale in a good mood is steak.”

I smile and wipe my eyes with my sleeve. “All right, but if I see even a trace of hurt in his eyes tomorrow, I’ll call it off.”

“Makes sense,” she approves. “And you won’t see pain.” Benson nods with certainty.

“You two go to bed, I can handle this. Besides, it will be more quiet that way.” They start to argue but perhaps sense that I want to be alone. So eventually they head to their apartments, threatening to come check in on me and make sure the tree is still up. As they are about to turn the corner, I remember.

“Cora! Benson! Wait.” I take out their gifts from my purse and skip to where they are standing, rooted to the spot. “Merry Christmas!”

They stare open-mouthed as they take the small packages from me. I start feeling really foolish. “Umm, it’s not much. Just a small thank you,” I mumble.

They tear the turquoise wrapping paper, Benson struggling a little with the bow and his enormous, sausage-like fingers. Cora opens her box first.

“It’s daffodil bulbs,” I say. “We’ve been experimenting with new breeds at the lab. They’ll be purple and white because they’re crossbred with hyacinth.”

“Thank you,” she says in amazement. “I’ve never seen purple daffodils.”

“Well, they don’t exist unless you make them in a lab, but that’s why I thought you would like them. I saw you had some paper-whites in the kitchen.”

She gives me a warm smile like she thinks I am Father Christmas himself. Then she turns to Benson and jabs him in the ribs. “What did you get, Benson?”

He lifts the lid of his box and pulls out a glass jar. His forehead crumples in confusion.

“It’s thief detection powder,” I explain.

His eyes widen and his face morphs from confusion into downright ecstatic pleasure. Apparently it’s true what they say: inside every adult man—even one as enormous as Benson, there’s a tiny boy waiting for the right toy.

“No fucking… I mean, I’m sorry… no way!”

“Yes way. I always had a jar around in case someone stole supplies to make psychedelics. It will turn the hands of the thief blue and it can’t be washed, unless you have the antidote. That’s the second jar,” I point.

Benson is gaping at me like a huge guppy fish. “Are you telling me you made this yourself?”

I nod, blushing. “Maybe you can use it to catch someone if they threaten Aiden…” I trail off, whether from embarrassment or fear that someone might actually hurt Aiden, I have no idea.

But it must be clear to Benson because he steps closer to me and lowers his head until his gentle brown eyes are level with mine. “It’s my job to protect him. Don’t you ever worry about that. His only enemy is inside him.”

I nod, afraid that if I say something I’ll choke up, and I’ve had enough emotional meltdowns tonight for Cora and Benson to safely label me as clinically unstable.

After they go to bed, I stuff the turkey quietly, fiercely glad that Aiden’s house is so big and that he has exiled himself to the farthest bedroom in his effort to stay as safely away from me as possible. I also marinate some steaks and bake cookies for his stocking because apparently, he has been known to ask for them in convoluted ways, like “Not sure what the big deal is about cookies? Can you make some for my office staff, Cora? Chocolate chip are their favorite.”

By six in the morning, I am finished. The tree is trimmed, his presents are wrapped, his stocking is filled with cookies and naughty coupons, and Christmas carols are downloaded on my iTunes account. After one last glance at our very own North Pole, I tiptoe to his bedroom and inch the door open quietly.

He sleeps. On his back as though he’s lying on cold ground, and hands in loose fists over his abs like he is holding a weapon. The only sign of rest is his peaceful face. As I did on that second night together, I want nothing more than to curl next to him and kiss him awake. The craving is so strong that it propels my feet forward to the bed. Like Aurora reaching for the spindle under Maleficient’s spell. But as I stretch one single finger toward his hand, his alarm goes off. Fur Elise! The melody startles me so much that I gasp. Instantly his eyes fling open.

“Elisa! Baby, are you okay?” he demands urgently, bolting upright—all signs of sleep disappearing.

“I’m fine, I’m great—don’t worry,” I assure him, perching next to him and slithering my way into his arms.

“What’s wrong? Why are you up so early?” Still urgent, but his arms tighten around me like titanium bars.

I press my lips on his chest. “There’s nothing wrong. I came to wake you up but you distracted me with your alarm clock.”

He groans. “You came to wake me up? Elisa, I’ve told you—that’s dangerous. Do I have to lock the door at night?”

“No, no, I was going to call your name,” I improvise quickly and get back to more vital matters. “Your alarm is Fur Elise?”

He shakes his head as though he doesn’t believe me, but then lies back down with a sigh, taking me with him. He tucks me into his fragrant chest and kisses my hair. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Tell me why your alarm is Fur Elise.”

“Why wouldn’t it be? I have good memories with that melody,” he shrugs as though this should be obvious.

I can’t speak over the heart galloping in my chest. He must like me. He must. Not as much as I love him, but enough to want to wake up to my melody.

“Now tell me, why are you up at six in the morning on a Saturday? Are you worried about your green card? Did you have a bad dream?”

I press my lips on his chest. “Such a pessimist, Aiden. You’re worse than me. Why couldn’t I have a good reason to want to see you?”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

A hint of the terror I felt last night flickers again but it’s too late now. He’ll see what I’ve done no matter what. “I have a surprise for you.”

His face relaxes, and the tectonic plates shift until his eyes become the clearest turquoise. “A surprise?” he smiles.

I nod, trying to calm down my pulse. He waits—probably for me to tell him what it is—but I’m having a bad case of stage freight. Maybe we should just stay here. I start kissing him, running my hands over his abs. He responds immediately.

“I like this surprise,” he murmurs against my lips and rolls me over his body so that I’m straddling him.

“Umm, it’s… in the… living room,” I breathe, barely coherent now that his lips have found a path down my throat toward my breasts.

“Oh… well… we… can…do…it…there…too,” he says between kisses. “Where… do you… want it?” He pulls back to examine my face intently as though his life depends on my answer. It’s enough for me to remember what’s happening.

“It’s not sex… well, at least not all of it.”

He smiles. “O-kay…” he draws out the word into syllables, now looking confused. “Are you sure you want me to see it? You seem a little… I don’t know… nervous.”

Too late now. Too late now. “Will you promise something before we go in there?”

The smile disappears at the serious tone of my voice. “Promise what? Elisa, what’s going on?”

“Promise me that for today, you will be selfish.” I run my fingers through his stubble and over his scar.

“Selfish? I’m … confused.” The deep V folds between his eyebrows.

“Well, for today, when you see what I have planned, I want you to be selfish. If you don’t like it, I want you to tell me right away. And if you do like it, then just enjoy it without thinking about right and wrong and all those moral principles you torture yourself with.”

The V disappears as he understands, and he smiles. “Am I that bad?”

“Yes.”

He shakes his head. “I’m a lot more selfish than you think I am. Case in point: you being here against my better judgment. But if it means this much to you, I promise. For today, I will be selfish. Not a hard thing to do with you…,” he adds quietly, as though speaking the last sentence to himself.

“Thank you! Now come.” I hop off him and take his hand. “Come and be selfish.”

He chuckles, climbs out of bed and slides on his pajamas. Please, let him love it. Or at least don’t let him hate it.

I fix my eyes on him the moment we cross the threshold of the living room. He stops dead on his tracks, as the overhead lights start flickering. But he doesn’t seem to notice them. He just stares unblinkingly for seventeen seconds, then blinks furiously, then stares again—his mouth open, arms hanging to the sides. A full minute later, he still has not said a word, but he turns to me slowly, looking like he is seeing a real-life elf. I’m shaking in my socks. Bad idea. This was a bad idea.

“Merry Christmas?” I meant to say it as a wish but it comes out like a question.

He doesn’t answer but the tectonic plates shift furiously in his eyes.

“Umm…Aiden?”

Eventually, the plates stop, and he gazes back at the tree. He still has not closed his mouth but he treads into the living room, stopping first at the tree and the presents underneath, touching his stocking, running his hand over the garlands and the Santa pillows. It’s not until I see his laser-focused eyes that I realize he is not remembering or hurting. He is recording this with all his senses—his super-memory absorbing every last detail for life. I breathe a small sigh of relief. If he is doing that, he cannot hate it. He would have flinched once or recoiled. But instead, he looks utterly engrossed. He walks back to me where I’m standing almost prostrate from nerves.

His eyes are glowing with a bright, new light I have not seen before, and he sinks on his knees until we are face to face.

“Elisa.” He cups my cheek gently, his thumb brushing over my lips. “You’re giving me Christmas?”

I nod and swallow hard. “I thought… I thought we’ve missed out on so many years … and who knows if we ever will have the chance… so maybe we celebrate it just this once. Even if it’s silly and it’s in May. And maybe now you will have some good memories… you know, to compete with the bad ones.” I don’t why I am whispering and tearing up, but abruptly he takes me in his arms in a hold so strong, it glues me back together.

“Baby, why are you so nervous about this? I love it.” His voice is soft, but emphatic.

“You do?” I pull back to look at his face. It’s lit up, looking as carefree and happy as a real Christmas morning.

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because, well, I thought you don’t celebrate Christmas. Because maybe it’s too… too painful?”

“Apparently not with you,” he answers with a true, blinding smile. “Merry Christmas, Elisa.”

“Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

I can’t stop my stupid tears. But they are happy tears. There is no pain in me at all. Only happiness and that sense of origin, of a new start. Abruptly I realize that even though I’m the one who planned Christmas, Aiden is the one giving it to me.

He kisses me on the mouth and dries my tears with his fingertips. “Seeing as how I’m supposed to be selfish today, I order you to stop crying immediately even if it’s good tears.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” I giggle, executing a Marine salute and wiping my eyes.

“Oh, I like this obeying thing. Okay, now stand up and take off your clothes.”

“No!” I laugh, smacking his chest. “Christmas is starting in two minutes. Go sit on the couch.”

His laughter dances around the room—so beautiful that I almost start crying again. “Yes, Ma’am.” He marches to the sofa by the tree, looking at the ornaments. “Are these yours?”

“Mine and Reagan’s. I borrowed them for the day.” I take my eyes off him only long enough to start the hot chocolate.

“And the lights and the tree?”

“Cora and Benson helped me. They’re amazing, by the way.”

“Yes, they are. You must have made their year with this.” He smiles as he tries to peek into his Dragon stocking.

“Aiden, no! No peeking!” I shout and he laughs again, sauntering my way. He looks so happy—like he has no past today. I pour the now-ready hot chocolate in mugs and hand one to him, wishing I could record the sound of his laughter.

“Ready to open your presents?” I say.

He looks at them with a strong emotion on his face. My hands start sweating in nerves so I start playing Christmas carols on my iPhone. He takes it from me and hooks it to some fancy speakers, humming along to Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I wish Dean Martin would stop ruining the sound of Aiden’s voice. Then he switches on the fireplace and turns to me.

“A dance first.”

He takes my hand, and we start twirling. I can’t stop grinning. “Gosh, your lips look delicious,” he sings in my ear. I listen to his voice, marveling that we are the same wounded Elisa and Aiden that we were yesterday, and maybe that we will be tomorrow. Just a bit more selfish for what we want today.

When the song ends, we sit by the tree, and I put all my effort not to look like a quivering mass of jello.

“There are no presents here for you,” Aiden says, and his face falls.

“Yes, there are. Here he is,” I say, and put my hand on his face. “And here,” I grab his cock, who also is excited for Christmas, probably wondering about his present.

“You’re getting daring, Elisa. I like it. Okay, which should I open first?”

“This one,” I hand him the smaller box. I have to sit on my hands so I don’t bite my knuckles. I follow his gaze as he opens the box, even though I know what he is seeing. A double frame; on one side is a photo of his home and on the other, my one-way ticket to America the day he bought his house. I would have never parted with this ticket but ever since I met him, it seems I came here for him alone.

He looks at me with a strong emotion on his face, the one without name that I saw at his Alone Place.

“Is this the real ticket?” he asks, his voice low.

I nod, swallowing so that tears don’t rise to my eyes.

He looks at it again even though I know he has memorized it. His Adam’s apple rolls once in his lovely throat. “Why are you giving it to me?”

“Because this whole journey was worth it just to meet you. Even if it is only now.” I don’t tell him that the ticket was bought with the last of my parents’ money or that all these years it has lived behind their picture on my nightstand.

He leans in and kisses along my jaw to the corner of my lips. “Thank you.” His voice is new, almost humbled.

“You’re welcome. And now, you have a frame!”

He chuckles. “So I do. I think I’ll put it on my desk in the library. It will shock the hell out of Cora and Benson.”

I almost float like a helium balloon. I love you, I love you, I love you. I snap a picture of the moment lest the words break through my locked teeth. “Ready for the other?” I ask.

“Will it make me cry?”

I laugh. “I don’t think so. You’re pretty tough.”

“I don’t know. That last one almost took me out.” He reaches for the big box with a grin. I scoot next to him for this one.

“Another frame,” he muses.

“Yes. I know you don’t really need it with your memory but I thought you should see a new way of connecting things.”

He raises one eyebrow. “New connections?”

“Yes, or associations. You remember everything. But maybe there is a happy way to connect the memories.”

He tears the turquoise paper and holds out the big frame. I watch every flicker of emotion as he takes it all in.

The front page of the Oregonian the day I arrived here. Javier’s sketch of that first painting. The front page of my PowerPoint presentation. A picture of Paradox Café. Byron’s Poem scrawled on the same paper as my paintings. Our Baci quotes. The dried Centifolia rose. The receipt from Powell’s Books. A copy of the front page of Fleming’s book. Bob’s business card. The signature page of the agreement for the sale of my supplement. A dried Aeternum. A picture of him sleeping. A picture of us signing my books. A map of Burford and one of the United States…

Now that I see it, I’m embarrassed. It’s cheesy, but it’s everything we have had together.

“Explain it all to me,” he says softly.

“What is the connection you see?”

He looks suddenly lost despite his perfect recall. “Us,” he says after a moment. I tingle at the pronoun.

“What else?”

“Well, your arrival here all way through yesterday, judging by the dates. The journey that brought you to me?”

“Yes, that’s there. Anything else?”

He shakes his head, and my heart breaks that he does not see himself there at all.

“What do you see?” he asks before I can speak. The tectonic plates are utterly still. He has no memories for this, nothing to interfere. And for what I have to say, that’s the best I can hope for.

“I see what sets you apart from everyone else.”

He swallows hard once. “What is that?”

“You told me what makes me special—my calmness and all that—but you don’t know your own worth. I think it’s time you hear it.”

He looks like he wants to argue so I press on, my voice gaining strength on each word. “From the first time I saw you, you have saved me in one way or another. At first, I’d just have these dreams about you, and every night they made the countdown slightly livable. On our embargo, you woke me up in every sense of the word. And now you’re helping me with my green card, even with my career. You are so determined to keep me safe that you even think you should save me from yourself. But there is one thing you are saving me more from than all others.”

“What?” He looks like the question is burning him.

“My past. You were right at Bob’s. I have lived every day trying to keep my parents alive because a part of me feels guilty about moving on, and an even bigger part still cannot cope with their… death. But then you came along and are bringing out the real me. Where I had a past, now I have a future. Things that used to hurt, now hurt a little less.”

I take his hand in mine and kiss it. “Thank you!”

He looks lost, eyes drifting a thousand miles away, then back again as though he is torn by two tremendous, opposing forces. Then somehow he resolves the conflict because he smiles and gazes at me. “There are two responses to that, Elisa. But in keeping with the rules for Christmas, I’ll only give you the selfish one. I have loved every minute. Even the ones I’ve hated.”

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Before I know it, I’m in his arms in one of his bionic movements. He kisses me hard, as if the strength of millions of memories is fueling him. My lips and tongue rush after his, their only goal to taste this moment for as long as he is willing to give it. I love you, my mind is singing. I love you. His lips consume me as our clothes come off. He kisses me slowly, as if each kiss should last one thousand years. And this moment becomes private, even from my own thoughts and my own words.

Around us rain pine needles, twinkling lights, and a song that for the last four years, I have not been able to listen to.

You’re all I want for Christmas.
All I want my whole life through.
Each day is just like Christmas.
Anytime that I’m with you.

My parents wink and walk away, as their favorite carol is now mine.

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Sequel Clue, Elisa’s Letter, Aiden’s New Year Resolution… Oh my!

Happy Holidays everyone!  Here is an early gift for you:  can you solve Elisa’s Riddle and find a clue about the sequel?  Try your smarts against her, and see if you can figure out one of her wishes. 🙂

Here is her Letter to Santa (with the riddle) and, for extra credit, below is Aiden’s New Year’s Resolution.  Can you guess what he means?  An IQ of 160, an eidetic memory, a crazy author, and countless amazing readers!  Piece of cake… Go!

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ELISA’S LETTER TO SANTA

Dear Santa,

When my mental mum Ani (pun intended) asked me to write this, I hung up on her, using some very U.S. Marine vocabulary (I’m furious with her for other reasons). But she kept calling and calling and calling and calling (she’s truly obnoxious that way) until the musical Fur Elise ringtone that Dad installed in our old rotary phone here in Burford filled the cottage with something other than emptiness. And I suppose for that, I became oddly grateful to my mental mum, so I’m doing what she asked. Besides, it occurred to me: I’m not the only one who has ever written to an imaginary person. Stop: don’t go there!

So here are my wishes. But what would a wish list be without a wee bit of logic? Just dreams, and frankly, I don’t dream anymore (except the strange turquoise-tinted nightmares at night).   That’s why there is a riddle for reading my list. If you solve it, you’ll understand a lot more than just my wishes (who cares about those anyway?).

Elisa’s Riddle

The first letter is always strong,
Like the iron sign that follows along.
But when I am thrown into the mold
The iron changes to the first hint of gold.

Yet all that strength and all that glitter
are nothing more than a weak whisper
So if you want to find the true treasure
This one little thing you must remember:

The last clue you will find
In the periodic table, group 15, first line
Mix everything together, and there the answer lies,
Clear as cloudless climes and starry skies.

My Wishes

  1. Freedom for Javier
  2. One more day with Reagan
  3. Seeing the Solises one last time
  4. Stopping the turquoise nightmares and the bloody knock
  5. The truth

Thank you, Santa! Oh, and get my mental mum to finish my journey, please!

Elisa

AIDEN’S NEW YEAR RESOLUTION

RIGHT FOUR WRONGS

***

Enjoy everyone! I will be back tomorrow and on Christmas with more goodies, including announcing the winner of the Thirty Nights Giveaway and a very special outtake!  HAPPY HOLIDAYS and may the next year be filled with peace, joy, and unforgettable book boyfriends.

xo, Ani

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More Fan Art for Thirty Nights!!!

Happy Monday lovelies! The Amazing Leslie Alvarez, aka Miss_Read_It has put together another beautiful piece of fan art for Thirty Nights! This is one of my favorite Elisa quotes.  Check it out and find her on Instagram.  Thank you Leslie! Definitely starting her a Javier Gallery.  Enjoy!

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First Fan Art for Thirty Nights

Happy Sunday everyone! I’m working on a little surprise for you but I couldn’t help but share this new little gem that landed in my email.  FAN ART for Thirty Nights!  This is from the talented Leslie Alvarez who has more goodies in store for us.  🙂 I especially love this because it blends the painting with the ticking clock! What do you guys think?  Maybe I’ll create a Leslie’s Gallery with Javier on the blog. Thank you Leslie for sharing your talent with us and for your love of Thirty Nights!!

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A Friend Until The End of Time: The Timeless Heroine

Happy Saturday everyone from an unusually-cold Portland, Oregon! Although I thought this would be a good excuse to wear those enormous faux-fur boots I convinced myself I absolutely needed, I decided it’s a better day to stay inside, decorate my tree, and write (the sequel, that is!)  Until we have some more news/material to share on that one (hopefully soon), I thought I’d open up a discussion on Book Heroines. We all lose our minds over the heroes (from Mr. Darcy to Christian Grey, my list of book boyfriends is LOOOONG!)  But I wonder whether part of that hold is not the heroine.  Although the heroes bind us to the book, I think the heroines bring us back time and time again.  Here are my thoughts on what makes for a Timeless Heroine. What do you think?

A FRIEND UNTIL THE END OF TIME: THE TIMELESS HEROINE

My husband and I have this game we play. It’s called Who Lives in Your Fantasy Neighborhood?™ His dream neighborhood consists of: Hugh Hefner, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, David Letterman, some baseball player I don’t know—you get it. My fantasy neighbors are Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen…

Notice a pattern? (Other than the very good question of how on earth my hubby and I would ever live together?) Of course you did. All my hubby’s dream neighbors are real people, and all of mine are fictional heroines. So that got me thinking: why? What is it about these heroines that transformed them from a character on page to a ‘til-death-do-us-part imaginary friend?

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One possible answer is that maybe I’m just plain crazy. After all, I have all the necessary ingredients for a little bit of madness. I’m a writer. I’ve been surviving on four hours of sleep per night and some mercury-questionable tuna sandwiches. I have out-loud dialogue with the characters of my novel, and at my dream dinner table, my heroine Elisa Snow, sits to my right. Crazy, yes?

Probable. But here is another theory: these heroines feel so real to me because, despite their surreal lives, they are wonderfully, imperfectly flawed. They have fears and insecurities, just like me. They make mistakes—big mistakes—and then fix them. They grow and change, and tell me that I, too, can become better. They take care of their heroes, no matter the cost. But there is one thing they never, ever compromise: themselves. They never sell out!

Sure, they are beautiful and smart and sassy and get the swoon-worthy man of my dreams. Yet I’m never jealous—because I know they deserve him. These heroines earn their happy endings because of the way they “live.”

Take my Elisa for example. An orphan, her biggest terror in life is losing someone she loves. After both her parents died in a car crash, she packed a small suitcase and crossed the ocean from England to the U.S. Not for money, not for fame, but to escape her memories. A starving science student by day and an artist’s muse by night, Elisa has slowly built a new life. With a new family, a new little lilac home, and a new best friend. But when the U.S. government orders her to return to England, she stands to lose everything all over again.

There is only one man who can save her: Aiden Hale. Dark, complex, sexy, with a hint of danger—he has every chemical element to be addictive to the heart. But how can Elisa allow herself to love and lose a third time around? She can’t—she resists him at every turn. Until she discovers Aiden’s own torment, and then—like a true heroine—her own fears no longer matter. All that matters is saving the man she can’t help but love. But her happiness comes at a high price: to keep Aiden, she must sacrifice her new family. And to save her new family, she must lose Aiden. Which will she choose? Which morals will she trade? It’s that final decision that has earned her a penthouse in my dream neighborhood for life.

What about you? Who lives in your fantasy neighborhood? Are Aiden and Elisa are on your list? Would love to hear from you!

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Top Ten Reasons Why We Love a Tortured Hero

Good morning lovelies and Happy Post-Turkey Day!  And, for my readers abroad, hope you are off to a great weekend! I wanted to share this guest post I wrote that is featured on a few blogs.  🙂 Knowing you, I think you’ll find it interesting.  I wrote it to explain some of Aiden’s (and indeed, the dark hero’s) appeal to us. What do you think?  Do you love tortured heroes? Would love to hear from you.

TOP 10 REASONS WHY WE LOVE A TORTURED HERO

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a pulse will fall in love with at least one tortured hero in her life. I know Jane Austen would agree, and that should be evidence enough. But if you need more convincing, here are three more incontrovertible proofs:

  1. Mr. Darcy

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  1. Heathcliff

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  1. Mr. Rochester

JANE EYRE

I am no exception. From the very first time I pictured Mr. Darcy’s arrogant brow disdaining the world, Heathcliff’s long fingers digging up a grave, and Rochester’s shaggy hair whipping at his jaw, I was a goner. And I knew then—I knew it like I knew the fast, strong, irrational pulse throbbing in my neck—that I would never stop loving the right wrong man. And that some day, somehow, I would write my own tortured hero.

And write him I did, in all his tormented beauty. Aiden Hale. His first name means fire in Gaelic, and his surname sounds like ice. Everything about him whispers, “darkness, darkness lies here…” From the icy sapphire eyes and the livid scar over his brow to his home, buried deep in a forest, and the relentless tension of his shoulders. Aiden Hale has a dark secret. And I fell hard all over again. That’s when I realized that my irrational pulse has its reasons—10 reasons to be exact—for loving tortured heroes.

  1. The secret nobody knows. There is nothing more compelling than a secret to keep you up at night. And no one does secrets like tortured heroes. They don’t hide small, petty banalities. They hide dark, deep, stormy things that change you forever when you discover them. Tortured heroes call to a fundamental part of our psyche: curiosity. We love to learn, and to understand. And so we stand no chance against a mystery.
  1. The face in the mirror. Tortured heroes are imperfect. They are flawed. They are scarred. They are outcasts. They screw up, over and over again. In short, they are just like us. And when we see those flaws—sometimes worse even than our own—we find companionship and understanding.
  1. The unbroken trust. Tortured heroes don’t gain your trust easily. They make you work for it. Page after page, they ensnare you into the deepest, darkest, most intimate kernel of their being. They let you into their secret. And something sacred happens when they trust us with that. We trust them right back. We know they will never, ever let us down. And just like that, we find safety.
  1. The unfailing hope. Hope never dies. At least not with tortured heroes. They remind us that change is possible; that no matter our flaws, we can always improve on ourselves; that no matter our wrongs, we can always find forgiveness. And that redemption is always possible.
  1. Forbidden fruit. How many times did my mama tell me to avoid rule breakers? To stay away from boys with tattoos and motorcycles and black eyes? Probably sensible advice for real life. But not for fantasy. Because when I want to escape, it’s never with the reliable, safe boy next door. It’s always in the strong arms of an utterly forbidden, perfectly imperfect man.
  1. Danger warning. Tortured heroes are dangerous. They tell us so themselves. Repeatedly. At first, we don’t believe them. But then a wall crumbles or a veil lifts, and we see it for the first time—that hint of danger they’ve been warning us about. Violence, possession, torment, loss, you name it. But the moment we sense that danger, adrenaline starts spiking, and we become addicted to tortured heroes for life.
  1. Sex on fire. Antiheroes are sexy. Plain and simple. Deep gazes, husky voices, whispered words. They are bad, they are ruthless, and they’ve been around the block. They have no morals; they have principles. And they don’t just take you; they possess you, because they fear it may be their one and only chance. If that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is.
  1. Survival of the fittest. Name a tortured hero who is not strong. I can’t do it. Because by the time we meet these heroes, they have already been through the blazes of hell. Sometimes hell looks like Aiden’s—war, torture, death. Sometimes, it looks like Mr. Darcy’s—the constraints of his social position. Whatever fire they had to walk through, tortured heroes have survived it. Who am I to stand against them?
  1. True love. The only way to love a tortured hero is unconditionally. You accept them with all their fatal flaws. Not despite of their imperfection, but because of it. And that’s how they love you back. They don’t know how to love half-way. They either love you with their entire being, or they don’t love at all. As my Aiden says, “Once I love, I love forever.”
  1. Protective instincts. But no matter how strong tortured heroes are, I’ve never met one that didn’t call to a protective instinct deep inside me. I want to take that vulnerable boy under all the steel layers in my arms, and guard him with my life. I will fight with best friends for my tortured heroes. I will stay up until 2:00 am, writing Top Ten posts about them. I will reincarnate them on page over and over again so they never die. I will spend sleepless nights to comfort them, and time away from my family to give them their happy ending. In short, I will protect them with my little, throbbing heart until the day I die. Because as Jane Austen would say:

They pierce my soul.

Want to read more about Aiden and his chance at redemption? Aestas Book Blog (yep, that Aestas, I’m not joking… the Goddess of Books!) had this to say about Aiden:

“If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I have a weakness for tormented heroes. Don’t ask why but guys with secret pain are literally the key to my heart. And Aiden was about as tortured as they come. But I especially loved the explanation for why. Being a former soldier eidetic memory meant that he vividly and accurately remembered everything he ever read, saw, heard, tasted, experienced, and felt. Naturally given some of the more horrific memories in his past on the battlefield, this led to an extremely painful form of PTSD. And yes, while some of his behaviour could certainly be labelled extreme under normal circumstances, once you understood the reason, it made perfect sense, explained the way he was and why he held certain view points. It brought a complexity to his character that intrigued me to no end and tugged all my heart-strings.”  –  Aestas Cross, Aestas Book Blog.

Do you agree?   Would love to hear from you!

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A special Giveaway & Thank you!

Hello lovelies!!

It’s been exactly a week since Thirty Nights was released, and what a week it has been!  I would like to thank every one of you who has picked up a copy, has read, and has dropped me a line or left a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and beyond.  I’m pretty sure reviews are the food of authors, and without them, we starve.

So to celebrate, and to give my brain some extra food for the sequel (YEP, it’s in the works!!) I’m doing a very special giveaway exclusive only on my blog & social media.  It’s the full THIRTY NIGHTS experience giveaway (picked through the sloshing Portland rain by yours truly):

  1. A Pandora’s pure sterling silver Rose Charm
  2. A signed Thirty Nights copy
  3. The coolest Powell’s book bag, Books Not Bombs—perfect to tote around your treasures
  4. A box of Baci chocolates so you can start your own collection
  5. A bottle of rose petal potpourri from the Portland Rose Garden
  6. A pod of solid Portland Rose perfume
  7. A jar of extracted Oregon Rain (yep, known for its curative abilities)
  8. A signed Powell’s bookmark
  9. A feature of the winner on my Blog, such as your favorite things, an interview of you–anything you want (optional and only with your consent!)

Take a look at the goodies, and read below for how you enter this special, personally selected giveaway:

Giveaway Package
The Rose Charm

Silver Rose Charm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baci chocolates, Portland Rose perfume, Rose Garden potpourri, Oregon Rain, Powell’s bookmark.

Portland Package 2

Portland Package

Powell’s fun

Powells Package

To enter this giveaway, it’s super-easy:

  1. Post a review of Thirty Nights on Amazon (click here)
  2. Email me a link at ani_keating@yahoo.com

This giveaway will run from November 25 until DECEMBER 20—so you can hopefully get your goodies by CHRISTMAS! The winner will be announced here on my blog on December 21, 2015.  Those of you who have posted a review already can just send me a link to your review and do not need to post again. And of course, we have to comply with applicable law—you can read those rules below.  THANK YOU AND GOOD LUCK!!!

Official Legal Rules: You must be 18 years or older to enter the giveaway. U.S. residents only. Void where prohibited. Only one winner will be selected.  Winning is a matter of chance only. Open from November 25 to December 20, 2015. Winner announced on or around December 21, 2015. Delivery date depends on delivery service provider, and is not guaranteed. 

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Mia Hopkins talks about her new novel, and why diverse heroines matter.

Hello everyone,

What a week it has been so far! Thirty Nights is out, and you guys have stayed true to your awesomeness! Thank you for reading and reviewing on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.  The most rewarding part about this is reading your words and seeing that I was able to make you happy for a while.  No better feeling. Please, please, drop me a line on Amazon (I’ve got a bad addiction to it.)

But today is not about me.  Today, I’m taking a break from Thirty Nights Craziness to introduce you to a new author that I love: Mia Hopkins.  I met Mia on Samhain’s vast author base, and became instantly taken with her voice, her storytelling, her hot male pictures, and especially pictures of food.  This woman does everything well.  Her first full-length novel—Deep Down—comes out today, and she is sharing a teaser, an excerpt, a full interview, and order links. I was lucky to get an advanced copy and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Eve and Sam. They are real, and they teach that we don’t have to look to fantasy to find dream-fulfillment.  It’s staring us in the face in the real people that surround us.  My review will follow, but in the mean time, here is Mia:

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Hi Mia! Welcome to my blog and thank you for all your support of Thirty Nights. Now, let’s talk about you!  If you and I had not met on Samhain’s author space, but had met in a sushi restaurant instead, what would you have told me Deep Down is about?

I would try not to talk with my mouth full, because I love sushi, but I would say this—it’s about a female sushi chef named Eve and a commercial fisherman named Sam who team up to outsmart a dangerous loan shark. But it’s about a lot of other things, too: sex, friendship, California, the ocean. Oh, and food! It’s definitely about food. Just put all that stuff in a blender, blitz it up, and that’s Deep Down.

Deep Down is very different from your first novella, Cowboy Valentine.  For one, it’s a full-length novel, but for another, it explores a different conflict.  What inspired you to write Deep Down?

At its deepest level, Deep Down is about fighting for control of your life when there are so many uncontrollable forces working against you. In my early twenties, I was working whatever jobs I could get and not moving forward in any significant way. I took a gamble and applied for work teaching English in Osaka, Japan. That gamble changed everything. I learned so much about myself and I fell in love with Japanese culture. Years later, while writing Deep Down, I wanted to capture that feeling of taking a big risk and crossing an ocean to start over. That’s exactly what my protagonist Eve does, but in the opposite direction—she comes to California instead.

What would you say is Eve’s biggest conflict in the book? Why?

Eve’s biggest conflict in the book is her fear that she isn’t being true to herself. Sam is this larger-than-life, incredibly charismatic figure. The more important he becomes in her life, the more she fears she’s giving up too much of her identity in exchange for helping him work out his own problems.

What is Sam’s biggest conflict? (Other than the trouble he is in with the cartels?)

Oh, Sam. Sam was my whipping boy. I did horrible things to this man. In terms of personality, I see Sam as this Han Solo character, a lovable rogue with a beat-up ship and a lot of adventures under his belt (in more ways than one). He’s loyal to his friends and works like a beast, but he’s made a lot of mistakes he’s paying for now. His biggest conflict is himself—this deep, secret belief that he’s nothing but a screw-up, unworthy of love and unworthy of Eve.

As a wife of someone who LOVES fishing and sushi, I connected with both Sam and Eve. I loved that they feel real, rather than fantastical/escapist.  Was that intentional and why?

Cool question! Like most romance readers, I enjoy novels about billionaires (like your Aiden in Thirty Nights, holy guacamole). I enjoy being seduced by that world. However, I absolutely love stories about working class heroes. I don’t want to romanticize manual labor—it’s difficult and thankless, it takes its toll on the body—but I do want to portray the dignity of people who do physical work and take pride in it. Sam is a commercial fisherman. Eve is a chef. They work with their hands and they operate at high levels in their respective industries—both are deeply respected by their peers. In my opinion, everyday heroes like them are worthy of epic love stories, too.

What are Eve’s and Sam’s biggest flaws, respectively?

In the beginning of the story, Eve is content to find loopholes in the system rather than to stand up against it. Sam’s biggest flaw is his self-doubt. It hamstrings him a lot.

If you could choose one word to describe their love story, what would it be?

Oh, man. What a good, meaty question, Ani. “Delicious.” [Ani: aren’t you hungry by now? I am.]

Like Deep Down, you have your own beautiful, interesting story.  Can you tell the readers something about you?  How did you decide to write romance and what brought you here?

Sure. Up until last year, I had worked as a teacher for thirteen years. In 2010, my husband and I were having some trouble starting a family. To help cheer me up, he’d bring me little gifts when he came home from work, just things from the drug store: a bottle of soda, a chocolate bar, a tabloid magazine with a particularly salacious headline. One day he brought me a Scottish highlander romance novel. I’d never read a romance novel before, but when I started reading it, I could not put that thing down. Soon I was living a double life. By day I worked with students on Shakespeare and Whitman and Steinbeck, but by night I devoured romance novels. Soon I started writing my own short stories and sending them out to websites and calls for submission. I sold a few, and in 2013, I started my first novel during NaNoWriMo. Slowly, my sales began to rise and in 2014, I decided to leave the classroom to write full time. My first novella, Cowboy Valentine, was published by Samhain this past August. And now Deep Down has been published by The Wild Rose Press. It’s been a really cool year.

If there were anything you could change about the current romance market, what would it be?

I’m a relatively new to publishing, and as such, pretty pathetically grateful to be working alongside so many talented, intelligent people. The romance industry is already so big almost any writer or reader will be able to find her place within it. In terms of a change I’d like to see, I can already see it happening—increased visibility for ethnically and culturally diverse authors and publishers. I follow the #weneeddiverseromance hashtag on Twitter. It’s a good place to start.

Finally, can you give the readers the links where they can find your book, and a short excerpt?

Sure! Thank you, Ani, for having me as a guest today. And a big thanks to your readers, too. I invite everyone to visit miahopkinsauthor.com for more information about my work.

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Excerpt

A gust of wind blew sheets of rain against the side of the building.

“I’d like to make a push in the next few weeks,” said Sam. “Instead of three days a week, we’ll be doing four. It’s going to be nasty work. Do you think you’ll be up to it?”

“No problem. Whatever you need.”

Without thinking, Sam ran his fingers through her ponytail. Her hair was silky, heavy, and slightly damp from her shower. He stroked her hair for a few seconds before he realized what he was doing. At once, he withdrew his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice rough. “My mind was somewhere else.”

Her smile was gentle. “Don’t worry about it.” She stood up and stretched. “I’m gonna change and get out of here so you can get some sleep.”

“Hell no,” he said. “It’s pissing rain.”

“It’s not that bad―”

“No way. No how.”

“But―”

“Don’t make me use my captain voice on you,” he said. When she looked at him, something flashed in her eyes. Did she like it when he told her what to do?

“Fine,” she said with mock indignation. She went over to the closet where he kept the spare pillow and blanket.

He got to his feet and put his hand on the closet door, preventing her from opening it. “We’re past this. It’s cold downstairs. Just take the bed.”

“What about you?” Her eyes were wide.

“Oh, I’m taking the bed, too.”

ANI: Ok, doesn’t that make you want to know what happens once he gets in bed?? Let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. 🙂  Read more about Deep Down and Mia below, and why USA Today Bestselling Author, Samanthe Beck, calls her “one of the most exciting new voices in super-hot contemporary romance.”  Add it to your next read, by clicking on the links below!

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Blurb

Sex, drugs, and spicy tuna rolls?

Resilient and disciplined, tsunami survivor Eve Ono moves to California from Japan looking for a position as a sushi chef. When she’s suddenly fired from her restaurant job, desperation drives her to find work on a fishing boat despite her fears of the ocean. To make matters worse, she’s stuck in close quarters with her new captain—a man whose raw physicality drives her out of her mind with lust.

Free-spirited and roguish, Sam Lamont is a commercial fisherman aboard his own dive boat, the Bravado. When he makes a bad deal with a deadly loan shark who threatens to take his boat, Sam is in danger of losing both his business and his way of life. On top of that, he’s got to train his new deckhand—a beautiful hard-ass who just so happens to be sexy as hell.

A female sushi chef with mad knife skills. A deep-sea diver who’s pissed off a Mexican drug cartel. Together, they’re in trouble, and the only way out is down.

“Mia Hopkins is one of the most exciting new voices in super-hot contemporary romance. Add her to your must-read list. Now!”

~Samanthe Beck, USA Today bestselling author

Buy Deep Down

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Wild Rose Press (print) 

 

Thank you for reading everyone!!! I’ll be back with more Thirty Nights stuff soon!

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY THIRTY NIGHTS and some more goodies!

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So the countdown is over, and Thirty Nights is here!  Really, truly, finally  here.  I wanted to thank every one who has followed me in this incredible journey: from those very first few readers on fan fiction to every single one of you who has read, reviewed, emailed, messaged, and supported my story.  And a ginormous thank-you and blog-hug to the following:

  • My wonderful editor, Tera Cuskaden Norris, for taking a chance on Thirty Nights, for her passion for a good story, and her hard work to bring you this book;
  • My awesome agent, Stacy Lorts, who saw the potential of this story when it was just a fairytale on my blog;
  • The whole Samhain team, and especially Katlyn Osborn, for all of their guidance and hard work;
  • My PR agency, Inkslinger PR, and the amazing, superwoman Nazarea Andrews, for curbing the insanity of the marketing and promos during the #30days countdown;
  • All the blogs who have featured Thirty Nights–so many to mention, but especially Aestas for her attention to Thirty Nights, A Literary Perusal, Jezebel Girl & FriendsGarden of Reden, Southern Belle Book Blog, for their amazing support through this process, and many others, which you can find here
  • And last, because it’s the closest to my heart, my friends and my husband for all his love, patience, and support during these last two mad, beautiful years .

I couldn’t have made it without you! I hope you enjoy Thirty Nights, and know that this was all for you! I can’t wait to hear what you think. I will be waiting for your thoughts with open hearts. And no matter what you say, THANK YOU!

And now another little goodie to keep you company while reading: the Poem Soundtrack for Thirty Nights.  Yep, you heard that right.  And why not?  A poem soundtrack makes as much sense for Thirty Nights as a playlist. 🙂 Here it is, with my favorite lines! Enjoy and see which one suits which scene and/or character… and read in the end for more info.

  1. She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night

of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and light,

meets in her aspect and her eyes.

  1. If You Were Coming in the Fall, Emily Dickinson

If certain, when this life was out,

That yours and mine should be,

I’d toss it yonder like a rind,

And taste eternity.

  1. I Do Not Love You… Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,

so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

  1. I Do Not Love You, Except Because I love You, Pablo Neruda

In this part of the story I am the one who

Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,

Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.

  1. Fire and Ice, Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

  1. I Carry Your Heart With Me, E.E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).

  1. Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her, Christopher Brennan

Then seek not, sweet, the “If” and “Why”

I love you now until I die.

For I must love because I live

And life in me is what you give.

  1. If Thou Must Love Me (Sonnet 14), Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If thou must love me, let it be for nought  

Except for love’s sake only.

  1. Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark…

  If this be error and upon me proved,

  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

  1. Extinguish My Eyes, Rainer Maria Rilke

Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.

and without feet, I still can come to you,

without a mouth, I still can call your name.

Sever my arms, I will still hold you,

with all my heart as with a hand.

Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.

And if you consume my brain with fire,

I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

Ahhhhh… I read these, and I want to give up writing because these are genius.  But not yet… 🙂 I will have more goodies for you during release week, including excerpts, guest posts, Aiden POV, giveaway announcement (over 1,500 people have entered!!!!) etc.  I will be back soon with more. All my love, Ani

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Last Day: Thank you, goodies, and a little ask!

Good morning everyone,

Where did the time go? It’s the last day in our countdown! After three years and thirty days, tomorrow, Thirty Nights will be released!! For those of you who have already pre-ordered and are waiting for it to land on your Kindle, Nook, and iPads—thank you for the bottom of my heart. For those of you who have not pre-ordered yet, please give it a shot and see if you like the original Aiden and Elisa.  The order links are on my home page.  But whether you have ordered or not, I just wanted to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has followed Thirty Nights throughout this journey, who has reviewed and emailed me with your thoughts and encouragement, and who has spread the word! Without you, Thirty Nights may have never happened.  It’s as simple as that.  Thank you!

Now, today’s goodies:

First, the official Thirty Nights Playlist.  Enjoy it on Spotify as you’re reading, and see if you can guess which scenes and chapters go with which song.

Second, a special, exclusive excerpt from one of my favorite Aiden and Elisa scenes. I chose it for the last excerpt because in my mind, this was the true turning point for both of them. And for what each means to the other.  Full-on trust, and full-on surrender.

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He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a tiny silver remote. A song I know—one of my favorites—floods the tent. “Amado Mio”, by Pink Martini. It’s flowing from a wireless set of speakers in the corner that I had apparently missed in my astonishment.

“May I have this dance?” he asks, holding his hand out to me.

“You tango?” I squeal. Bloody hell, I’m melting. Inert gases have more substance than I do right now.

My favorite dimple puckers on his cheek. “Since this afternoon.”

“You learned tango…in one afternoon?” Where is my jaw? It was here somewhere, around the Aeternum.

He chuckles at my incredulous expression. “In the ninety-two minutes it took you to get ready, to be precise.”

When I open and close my mouth a few times, unable to produce sound, he smiles, tapping his temple. “There are some benefits to this beast and YouTube.”

I blink and close my mouth. “That’s just…just…” Brilliant? Stunning? No, I can only think of one word. “That’s just Aiden.”

His chuckle becomes a true laugh as he wraps his arm around my waist, pulling me into a close embrace. He starts moving. At first a slow cadencia, then the caminada, his long legs parting mine. Aiden leads in his dominant, protective way, but the real change is in me. For the first time in my life, tango does for me what tango does for women. I am not a daughter. I am not a sister. I am not a friend. I am a woman. Aiden’s woman. My leg hooks and wraps around his with a new confidence, sultry, feminine and powerful. I watch our entwined shadows on the tent’s curtains, looking very much like Mum and Dad’s when they danced. Yet, in this moment, I’m discovering a new bliss that belongs to me alone. Not to ghosts, and not to memories.

I bury my face in his chest, inhaling the Aiden-and-Aeternum scent.

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And last, a small task! To support for Thirty Nights, for those of you who are excited and have been following it in this journey, please change your avatar to the Thirty Nights cover tomorrow for its release, with  the French Flag colors to show our support and solidarity for the people of France and the victims.  Feel free to download this, and I will circulate on my social media as well.  And when you get the book, please don’t forget to leave a review!! 🙂 It makes the difference between a loved book that no one hears about and a loved book we can all share. THANK YOU everyone for all your support, your love, your commitment to this story, and your participation in this amazing journey!  I will be back soon, xo Ani

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DAY 3: TRAILER For Thirty Nights!

Good morning everyone!

An early morning in my household, as my hubby and I are volunteering at a church today.  First, my thoughts and prayers to all the victims and their families in Paris. It’s heartbreaking and I’m giving all my French readers a big hug and comfort. I hope you are all safe, and that you stay strong through this.  Lots of love from Portland, Oregon.

Second, to cheer you up a bit, here is one my favorite surprises we’ve prepared for you for Thirty Nights.  The Book Trailer!!!!! I love, love, love, love this trailer so much.  I hope you like it too. Thank you, Amanda and Samhain Publishing for creating it for me, and for all your hard word on the book!  There ‘re  only three days left. 🙂  I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me so far.  Have a good Saturday, with all your loved ones and families near and safe!

Thirty Nights Trailer:

Day 5: Little Teaser and a Podcast

Hey everyone!
It’s almost Friday, which means it’s almost the weekend, which means it’s almost November 17!!! I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep at all in the next few nights.  But we have some more fun for you.  First a little art teaser. :-)  And second my first podcast! A little honest to goodness real interview.  Derek Diamond at DDE_Podcast. 🙂 It was so much fun to speak with him about Thirty Nights, authors, fan fiction, some new fanficiton authors, and more!!  You can listen to it on the DDE_Podcast  and I hope you like it!
And here is the TEASER! Enjoy!!!

“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?” I ask the question that is buzzing in my brain to prevent myself from tripping while sitting down.

His smile vanishes as he sips his espresso. He sets down his cup and looks at me with probing intensity. “Are you the woman in my paintings?”

Bollocks! The question settles in front of me like a coiled beast. Blood rushes to my feet and my stomach twists. My mouth parts to let in some air. I notice with horror that he has seen all my reactions, which must be confirmation enough. I have to get it together. No matter my flights of fancy, what Javier and I are doing is illegal. I’m a goner already, but Javier could get deported. I have to help him, even if it takes me down.

“Why would you think that?” I try to keep my voice as composed as possible but don’t do a great job of it.

“I’m a man of means, Miss Snow.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Bloody hell, does he know about Javier already?

“It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it.

 

Excerpt 5 Photo

Day 7: Author Interview with Mia Hopkins

Good morning everyone, and happy Day 7—eek, only one week left! Can’t wait for all of you to hold Thirty Nights and find Elisa and Aiden again, in both their new and old selves.  But we still have a few more exciting plans for you: more excerpts, more posts, a trailer, playlists, reviews, and more interviews.  Here is another one for Day 7 with Mia Hopkins—an amazing author on her own right, who burst into the romance market as the winner of the RWA Contemporary Romance Writers Stiletto Award of erotic romance, and has not stopped since.  Check out our interview, and spread the word.  We little debut authors are nothing without our readers.  xo, Ani

thirtynights72web2

HI, ANI. CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK?

Would love to. Thirty Nights is the first book in the American Beauty series. It tells the love story of an orphan from England—Elisa—and a U.S. Marine with PTSD and total recall—Aiden. They meet in the eleventh hour, when in the height of the anti-immigrant movement, Elisa’s visa to live in the U.S. is denied. Determined to save Elisa from everything, including the government he once served, Aiden fights the way only he can. His only condition is for Elisa to stay away from him and his demons. But despite all the reasons why they shouldn’t be involved, the two soon realize that the biggest battle is fighting their tortured pasts. With thirty nights left, they begin a terrifying and scorching race to save themselves, and each other. But are some demons too deep, too vast to fall? In love, is surrender perhaps the best kind of fight? I’ll let the readers decide.

Your protagonist Elisa faces a difficult challenge when her visa is denied. What inspired you to create her?

Elisa—unlike all other characters I’ve written—came to me fully formed. I knew from the moment I “heard” her voice in my head who she was, what foods she liked, what made her tick. But not because she is me in any way. She incorporates some of the best traits of the most influential women in my life, and their flaws—even though she is entirely fictional.

But at the core, Elisa was “born” because I wanted a heroine who gave voice to the millions of women who have come to (or were born in) this land and fight tooth and nail for their dreams. I wanted to see what the American Dream still means: to Elisa, it means love and family.

Tell us a little bit more about Aiden. What makes him so yummy?

Read more about Aiden at Mia’s Blog

SEE YOU ALL SOON!! Like, in a few hours.  Love,

Ani

Day 9: Full Excerpt 3

Happy Sunday everyone! A day for working in pajamas in my home. We’re in the single-digit days for Thirty Nightsnine more days. That’s it! How can time move so fast and so slow at the same time? You’ll be seeing lots of activity in the next few days: excerpts, trailer, reviews, interviews, etc.  Please help me spread the word and make Thirty Nights what we’ve all wanted it to be.  And because it’s Sunday, here is a full-length excerpt for you!  Enjoy it!

EXCERPT 3: AIDEN’S HOME

An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us...

An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us…

Suddenly, I know we have entered his domain the way we know spring has arrived. With a feeling in our blood, right before ice starts to melt. The pressure of the altitude muffles my ears until all I hear is my own heartbeat. There are no houses around anymore, only dense evergreens and sky. Aiden takes a sharp left and comes to a stop before a modern iron gate. He slides his palm over a pad in a stainless steel monitor. The gates open.

I expect to see a house, but no. An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us, framed by tall oaks and cedars. On the right, in a green clearing, is a paved, smooth circle. It takes a few blinks to realize it’s a helipad.

At last, as though part of nature, a stately house materializes among the trees. Except, the word house is too artificial. This is almost an extension of the primordial forest. Everything about it, from the red cedar wood panels to the charcoal slate, the gray riverbed rocks and the airy spatial windows, is organic. The modern minimalist lines curve around nature rather than bending nature to their will.

Aiden chuckles next to me, and I close my gaping mouth. “It’s beautiful here,” I say.

“It’s getting better.” He smiles, and gets out of the car to open my door. The moment I’m out, he takes my hand again and presses his lips to my hair. I lean into him, sniffing his Aiden scent surreptitiously. I should figure out a way to bottle this.

At the double front doors, he slides his palm over another pad. The doors open into a cream-and-slate foyer. The moment we step inside, lights brighten almost imperceptibly. I blink once and everything is back to normal. Hmm, maybe I imagined it.

Aiden leads me by my waist to a palatial living room. As we cross the threshold, the lights brighten and dim again, blinking fast. I turn to ask him, but he shakes his head. I tuck this away as a world perched between earth and sky surrounds me.

Straight ahead, Mount Hood is almost touchable. Refracting sunrays are my only clue that a back wall separates us, made entirely of glass. I blink, recalling Denton’s lecture on glass optical qualities. This must be the highest—nearly invisible.

Everything from the open-flame riverbed rock fireplace to the barstools in a kitchen the size of Feign Art is bespoke and chic. All light gray and cream, except the chestnut wooden floor and the oversized salvaged oak coffee table. Colors of rivers and forests. Abstract, understated art, none of it my paintings. There is something peaceful about the stunning natural décor.

Yet my first thought is…not loneliness. The controlled minimalism is too intentional for that. Isolation. That’s what it is. I look for signs of the inner Aiden. There are some books stacked on the coffee table. The Brothers Karamazov—one of my favorites, Byron’s Poems, The Things They Carried. Redemption, passion, guilt, war. And poetry. Aiden Hale has soul.

My eyes drift to a shiny black piano, tucked by the glass wall. My breath catches a little at the sight. Not because it’s a rare Bösendorfer. But because on it, is the most astonishing arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. They’re not in a vase—they’re in a low crystal terrarium, like a secret garden. I walk to it in a trance, sensing Aiden’s body heat behind me.

And there, rising over green moss, is a single bloom of probably every flower genus they sell in Portland. Hyacinth, orchid, gardenia, peony, amaryllis, calla lily, rose…

“I didn’t know which one was your favorite.” Aiden’s warm breath tickles my cheek. It’s just air—his air—but my knees start wobbling. He pulls me against his front, his lips fluttering over my jawline to my ear.

“So?” he whispers.

“Hmm?”

“Favorite flower?” He kisses the soft spot behind my ear. I shiver.

“Umm…”

He chuckles and pulls away. “Maybe it’s too soon to combine thinking with kissing.”

I flush the color of the amaryllis. “Roses,” I breathe.

He raises an eyebrow. “Roses?” There is a hint of humor in his voice.

“What’s wrong with roses?”

“Nothing. It’s just such a common choice for such an uncommon woman.”

©2015 Ani KeatingiStock_000033453000_Small

Day 11: My Guest Post for NYT Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin

Good morning everyone, and Happy Day 11 in the countdown:  It has been a week of great news in my world:  First, Aestas Book Blog — yes, that Aestas, the Goddess of all Books–picked up Thirty nights in her to-be-read list.  **Super-squeeeeeeeal**  Second, I got my author copies in the mail!!!!   IMG_2662There is no feeling like it in the world. Especially after a 15-hour long day at work. I can’t stop staring at them.   And third, I did a guest post on NYT Bestselling Author and USA Today’s Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin’s blog.  I was a little star-struck for the whole process, but at least I managed to string two words together. 🙂  Please read it here, and let me know what you think.  You’ll see one of your favorite excerpts there too. 🙂

ANI KEATING: From Fanfiction to Published Author—Five Things I Learned in the Process

When Delilah invited me to post on her blog, my first reaction was a fangirl squeal. My second reaction was a Carlton dance.  And my third reaction was a complete, paralyzing writer’s block, which continued until last night.  How the hell do I choose what to write on Delilah’s blog? This is Delilah! Everyone has been in bed with her, and I’m just popping my publishing cherry!! Oh, the stress.

But I have a generally-calm, down-to-earth, hold-your-hand-through-hell hubby who said, “That’s what you write about.  Popping your cherry.” And he was right. With my first book only eleven days away, I haven’t taken a full moment to pause and articulate what I learned in this amazing process.  It started out as a small story on Fanfiction, then it grew on my blog, and now, finally, it’s hitting the stands.  It has been a beautiful whirlwind, filled with lessons.  And because I’m a list person (blame my legal job), here are the top five:

READ MORE AT: Ani Keating: From Fanfiction to Published Author — Five Things I Learned In the Process (Contest)

Day 14: Full-Length Excerpt 2 and Excerpt Tour Schedule

Good morning, and happy Day 14 to #thirtynights!!  Two weeks!  Two weeks! The whole apartment building has been listening to me screaming that, and they’re all sure our apartment is actually a padded, rubber room.  Oh well! I have a couple of goodies for you today:

  1. The second full-length excerpt for Thirty Nights.
  2. A schedule of all the blogs that will be featuring Thirty Nights excerpts from November 2 to November 8.  Go and check them out and find out about some new releases as well.

I hope you enjoy them! And since we are getting so close, I’d love to ask for your help with spreading the word! You guys made this possible the first time around with telling your friends, posting on your media, etc. Please, please, please do the same now so that Thrity Nights can have a good shot on the stands and everyone can meet the same characters we’ve loved for a while. 🙂  And feel free to send me links to your posts and I’ll circulate them too.  THANK YOU everyone! xo

Here is the Excerpt Tour Schedule:

Friends Till The End Book Blog http://friendstilltheendbookblog.blogspot.ca/ 2-Nov
Southern Vixens Book Obsessions http://www.facebook.com/svbookobsessions 2-Nov
Maari Loves Her Indies https://www.facebook.com/Maari-Loves-Her-Indies-483861215121076/timeline/ 2-Nov
Works of Fiction http://bkwrm29.blogspot.com/ 2-Nov
Sanaa’s Book Blog Http://blogtasticreviews.wordpress.com 2-Nov
A Literary Perusal http://aliteraryperusal.com 3-Nov
Shelf Life http://www.mom2hjkblog.com 3-Nov
Tumbleweed Book Reviews https://www.tumbleweedreviews.com 3-Nov
Bad Boy Book Addicts http://badboybookaddicts.blogspot.co.uk 3-Nov
Turn The Paige Book Blog https://www.facebook.com/turnthepaigebookblog 3-Nov
Read My Mind http://www.aliseonlife.blogspotcom 4-Nov
Reading and Writing Between the Wines Blog http://readingbetweenthewinesblog.com/ 4-Nov
Teatime and Books http://www.teatimeandbooks76.blogspot.com 4-Nov
Cupcakes and Vodka Book Blog http://cupcakesandvodkabookblog.blogspot.com/ 4-Nov
Garden of rEden http://www.gardenofreden,com 4-Nov
SnoopyDoo’s Book Reviews http://snoopydoosbookreviews.com/ 5-Nov
grownupfangirl // oh the bookfeels http://www.grownupfangirl.com // ohthebookfeelsl.com 5-Nov
Mama’s Dirty Little Reads http://www.mamasdirtylittlereads.com 5-Nov
A Dream Within A Dream http://adreamwithindream.blogspot.com 5-Nov
Lucky 13 Book Reviews and News https://m.facebook.com/lucky13bookreviews 6-Nov
Pink Lace & Silver Buckles Book Blog http://www.pinklacebookblog.com 6-Nov
Arc Angel http://www.facebook.com/lynseyag 6-Nov
My Favorite Things http://heffroberts.blogspot.com 6-Nov
Adventures in Writing http://thhernandez.com/blog-3 7-Nov
PBC http://www.paranormal-bookclub.com 7-Nov
Up All Night Book Addict http://www.upallnightbookaddict@live.com 7-Nov
Mikky’s World Of Books http://mikkysworldofbooks.blogspot.ro/ 7-Nov
Sexy Bibliophiles http://sexybibliophiles.com 8-Nov
Liz’s Reading Life http://lizjosette.blogspot.com 8-Nov
Evermore Books http://evermorebooks.weebly.com/ 8-Nov
The Book Lovers Codex http://www.thebookloverscodex.co.uk 8-Nov
Alpha Book Club http://alphabookclub1.blogspot.com 8-Nov

And now the Excerpt.  This is my favorite Aiden Moment. Ever.

EXCERPT 2: FIRST KISS

Excerpt 2 First Kiss Photo

He steps inside. I think he’s trying to calm himself but it’s hard to tell with the smoke coming out of his ears. He runs a hand over his hair. What the devil is wrong with him? He takes one deep breath and explodes.

“Are you so above the rest, Miss Snow, that you will not deign to attend even your graduation from the institution that has granted you its highest academic honor? Or is this how little your own life means to you?” He speaks through gritted teeth.

Oh, bollocks! How did he find out, and why does he care? Be strong, Isa. “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.” I ignore his second question. Something about it makes me recoil.

He looks at me like I just insulted his mother. Honestly, I think I see fire from his nostrils. “None of my fucking business? Is that your answer?” Still gritted teeth, which I suppose is better than fangs.

“Yes, that’s my answer.” I stay calm, hoping some of it will rub off on him. No such luck.

“Over three thousand people watched President Campbell announce Miss Elisa Cecilia Snow, valedictorian in absentia, and a full minute of silence fell over the crowd, and you say it’s none of my fucking business?” He is spitting fire.

Damn it! Why would President Campbell announce it? I emailed the traitor. Well, one thing at a time. The Dragon first. “No, I didn’t say fucking business. I said simply business.”

He looks at me with flared nostrils and roars, his fists hanging down.

“What is wrong with you?”

Oh, this is rich. He is morphing into a Tolkien creature and I’m the freak? I am usually a calm, rational agent. It’s probably not apparent based on this last week, but I am. But right now, with my newly shaved legs and my lacy knickers on, after practicing his name all day in front of a stupid fan, I want to scratch his eyes out.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr. Hale. However, based on your behavior these last two days, may I suggest the very real possibility that there is something seriously wrong with you? I strongly recommend that you visit a psychiatrist, sir, and soon, before you become a menace on the streets of Portland and incinerate us all for exercising our right as free human beings to go wherever we bloody well please,” I hiss, feeling a kindred spirit with Medusa because he has turned to stone.

Before I can draw a breath, he takes the two steps between us and his mouth closes in on mine, his hands like a vise around my face.

The force of his kiss slams me against the wall and makes me gasp. His lips mold with mine, and his tongue is dancing inside my mouth. My knees shake a little. As if he knows, one of his hands leaves my face, trails down my body and rests at the small of my back, arching me against him and supporting all my weight. I move my tongue shyly around his. I taste cinnamon and something else, something Aiden. My blood ignites, and another gasp escapes me. At the sound, he presses his hips against me, and his long fingers reach into my hair. He pulls my head back until my mouth opens wider. Our tongues move together, and his anger changes to desperation and then to a slower rhythm that I can follow. Of their own accord, my arms reach up around his neck and my fingers knot in his hair. He tenses, so I try to let go but he draws me closer until there is no more space left. I feel every line of his body against mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip. It takes me a moment to realize that the moan I hear is coming from me. He pulls away, his breathing harsh and labored.

“Impossible woman,” he growls.

I open my eyes. His sapphire depths are blazing. Without his arm supporting me, my knees go back to shaky and weak. Then it dawns on me. Bloody hell, I’ve just been kissed by Aiden Hale! And what a kiss it was. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much experience with such things, but I am willing to bet my supplement’s formula that no girl, anywhere, has been kissed like this. I pinch myself discreetly to make sure I’m awake. Yes, it was real. My lips are tingling.

“Are you ready to go?” he asks, his breathing now back in control. Apparently, we are not going to talk about it. That’s good. What if his next words end this? And what is there to say regardless? By some miracle, he wants me at some level, and I want him at all levels. That’s good enough for now. Good enough for forever for someone like me.

©2015 Ani Keating

Day 16: Full-Length Excerpt 1

Happy post-Halloween Sunday!  Hope everyone has recovered from the candy.  I have not.  Ate one too many Twix bars… then tried to convince myself that eating bread and cheese would counteract the sugar… BAD idea! Note to self:  if your stomach is hurting from too much food, the answer is not more food.

Anyway, as promised, and because Sunday used to be posting day for Thirty Nights when it was just a seedling, I thought I’d give you the first full-length excerpt today.  Meeting Aiden Hale.  Enjoy! (30N Pros: do you see the differences?) Be back with more.  xo, Ani

EXCERPT 1: MEETING AIDEN HALE

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A tall man, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit, white shirt and cobalt-blue tie, is standing a few feet from the gallery desk, scrutinizing a painting. His dark brown hair is swept back in casual waves. His eyes burn an intense sapphire blue. On the corner of his right eye is an inch-long scar, bleached by time. Beautiful in its savagery. Like something sharp could not resist his beauty but ricocheted at the last minute, desperate to mark him as its own, yet unable to defile him.

Attractive. Much, much too attractive. In fact, only someone so bewildering could reach me in this final hour. For a wild second, I wonder whether my brain has snapped and has created him, like a hallucination, to get me through the next thirty-seven days alive.

Despite his magnetic pull, something about his posture creates a force field around him. Untouchable. Distant. He stands straight, away from everything, his back angled toward the wall. His broad shoulders are tense, as though he senses an invisible, uninvited presence behind him. I scan the gallery, expecting to see something or someone other than Kasia. But it’s utterly empty, except a tall man, the size of Shaquille O’Neal, standing in the far corner like a security guard.

“Would you like something to drink, Mr. Hale?” Kasia simpers, her voice higher than usual. She sounds like she is faking a British accent. I snort.

“No, thank you,” he answers coldly, continuing to stare at the painting in front of him.

I follow his gaze and stop. I feel a twinge of satisfaction to see that he is looking at a painting of me. Not that he would know that. I never model my face, just random parts of my body. This painting portrays only the curve of my throat and jawline, my hair slightly swept back, exposing the skin. The rest of the canvas recedes into darkness. That’s Javier’s style—he never paints blatantly erotic things like breasts, arse, pubic hair. That’s not the point, he says. The point is to force the viewer to imagine the rest of the beauty. Good thing too. I couldn’t have posed naked for anyone, especially Javier. Today, we are painting my waist and left hipbone, but I have a long white sheet to cover the rest of me.

“We could probably have that painting done in color as well.” Kasia is melting. “But the artist feels that the black, white and gray colors allow the real beauty to shine through.”

He does not respond to her. I feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Kasia now. Really, anyone would be a mess. I need to leave, but suddenly I want to hear his voice again. It’s cold and cutting, as if every word is intended to crack a canyon between him and the world. But it’s also hypnotic. Like you would do anything it bid you to do.

My short-lived sympathy evaporates like smoke when Kasia turns to me with a raised eyebrow.

“Isa! Why are you standing there? You know Brett’s instructions. Cleaning ladies in the back.” She cocks her head to the side, pointing to the back door that leads to Javier’s secret studio.

Fuck off, Kasia. I start to walk away but Mr. Hale turns to see what has offended Kasia. He moves with paradoxical military grace. Fluid, yet erect. As if he expects to defend himself at any point but is confident about the outcome. He regards me intently, his eyes narrowing slightly at the corners. There is something endless about his eyes—like you enter through them and perhaps never come out. For a moment, I panic that he can see a similarity between me and the woman in the painting. That he knows it’s me.

But I recover quickly. There is nothing in the painting that can link its subject to me. That’s Javier’s point. That the woman on the canvas can be any woman, any fantasy, any emotion because only a small, unidentifiable part of her is exposed. Mr. Hale’s impassive face confirms Javier’s genius. He turns to Kasia and his voice is, impossibly, colder.

“I will purchase the painting. Is it part of a series?”

Kasia fumbles as she takes his credit card and hands him the purchase agreement. She blushes and stammers and finally manages, “Umm, no—I mean, yes. Yes, it is. The one you’re purchasing is the first. The artist is working on the final, and there are three others in the back. Would you like to see them?”

I know the other paintings. One is of my right shoulder and collarbone. The other one is just my belly. The last one is my left leg, knee down, standing on tiptoe.

“With the same model?” Mr. Hale asks.

“Yes—er, I mean, technically no. The artist says the model is not real, Mr. Hale. He imagined her.”

He does not speak. For an instant, I feel like I’m fading. Like I truly don’t exist here anymore. Adrenaline spikes in my blood and I have a compulsive urge to throw myself between them and say, It’s me! I’m the girl you want!

His voice whips through the air again. “I will buy them.”

Instantly, I feel the first warmth of the day. He kept me. I may be gone in a month but at least some parts of me are ending up on the wall of an earthly Adonis.

“I’ll call you when the final painting is finished, Mr. Hale,” Kasia gushes. She would have an easier time lifting the Portland Memorial Coliseum with her pinky than getting a reaction from him.

He starts reading the purchase agreement, and I get the feeling he is simply avoiding looking at her. “Double the price if it is finished by the weekend.”

Kasia’s mouth pops open. So does mine. Feign sells those paintings for $10,000 apiece. Of course, Javier gets only $400 and gives me $50. Who buys art without looking at it? At regular price, let alone double? Mr. Hale is now poring over the care guarantee agreement. Frustrated with his indifference, Kasia takes it out on me.

“Isa? Now.”

From my peripheral vision, I see his head whip up but I scuttle away to where Javier is waiting, not daring to look at the cold stranger.

©2015 Ani KeatingiStock_000033453000_Small

Day 17: A Hint of Danger

Happy Halloween, everyone!

I hope you’ve got your best, scariest, most dangerous face on, and all your ghosts, ghouls, and goblins are happily hovering around the candy. In our little apartment, hubby has already started to dig in the bowl full of Twix and Starburst. If there is any left by the time the kiddos get here, it will be a miracle.  If not, I’m not sure what my exit strategy is when his sugar high hits.  I may or may not be spending Halloween night at the motel down the street.  🙂  Anyway, I have a nice surprise for you tomorrow (I hope), but before then, here is a hint of the darker side of Thirty Nights. Coming in only 17 days.  And great work entering the raffle: one of you better win that Tiffany’s necklace.  Talk to you soon. xo, Ani

Danger Teaser

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Day 19: Aiden Memory Teaser

Good morning everyone! I took a little break for Day 20, mostly because of a 12-hour day writing briefs at work. 🙂 But I can’t go more than 24 hours without a little bit of Aiden, so this one is as much for me as it is for you.  Because I freaking love this photo.  And this line.  You’ll know that this relates to Aiden’s eidetic memory, or total recall.  But I bet you don’t remember the line because it’s from a brand-new scene.  Hope you like it! Day 19 almost gone.  #ThirtyNights is around the corner.  Please spread the word and use the hashtag. Love you all, xo – Ani

Aiden Memory Teaser

Day 21: Another little teaser

Happy Tuesday every one! It’s almost Wednesday, which means it’s almost Friday.  For today—Day 21, I thought I’d show you what Elisa’s paintings look like in Aiden’s bedroom.  Or at least how they are arranged.  When editors and agents read the book, that was one of their questions. It’s hard for me to find a picture of Aiden’s bedroom similar to what’s in my head (still working on that).  It’s even harder (actually, it has been impossible, and I’ve given up) to find the actual paintings.  Here is the closest of what I can find, and how they look on the wall. Hope you like it. 🙂  Talk soon, xo – Ani

AIDEN’S BEDROOM TEASER:

We walk through a hallway along the ubiquitous glass wall, our footfalls echoing on the polished hardwood floor. Over the sound system, Neil Diamond croons about a girl becoming a woman. We walk past six open doors and stop at one that is slightly ajar. He opens it and steps to the side. I enter, feeling like I am walking into a haunted house and a dream at once.

It’s his bedroom.

Excerpt 4 Bedroom Photo

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Day 22: Recipe for Aiden and Elisa’s First Meal (and Gandy Monday)

Happy Monday loveys! (I can hear you complain, “ah, not so loud, it’s Monday morning!”).  True, so we will keep easy for today.  How about some good food and hotness  to start the week right? Below is the recipe of the first meal that Aiden and Elisa share.  Can you guess where it was? It was at Aiden’s home, for her graduation (that she decided to skip).  Roasted Wild Salmon and Apple-Fennel Salad.  It’s super-easy! 

As I was finished editing Thirty Nights, I got the idea of collecting all its recipes and sharing them.  So here is the first.  Hope you enjoy it.  I actually felt good after eating this (trying to use my “first book fifteen”).

WILD SALMON and APPLE-FENNEL SALAD 

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Ingredients for the Salmon (serves four):

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 4 skinless wild Sockeye or Chinook salmon fillets (about 5 ounces each)
  • 1 cup very thinly shaved fennel (from 1 bulb)
  • 1 cup of small cherry tomatoes (mixed colors)
  • A few springs of flat-leaf parsley
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Coarse salt for sprinkling
  • Zest of half a lemon
  • Five medium-thickness lemon slices

Photo courtesy of Martha Stewart

Ingredients for the Salad:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a small lemon
  • juice of half of a small blood orange or regular orange (preferably Valencia)
  • 1/2 cup very thinly shaved fennel (from 1/2 bulb)
  • 1 apple (preferably Golden Delicious apple), thinly sliced or julienned
  • 1/2 cup of pomegranate seeds (optional)
  • 2 generous cups of mixed greens (preferably arugula, mache, pea shoots, baby kale, butter lettuce, and dark leaf baby lettuce)
  • salt (pepper optional)

Preparation For Salmon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix five tablespoons of the olive oil with the lemon juice and rub each salmon fillet.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large ovenproof skillet over high heat (preferably Pyrex), and swirl to coat pan. Layer the lemon slices and fennel on bottom.

Place salmon, skinned side up, and surround with the cherry tomatoes. Sear until golden, about 3 minutes. Flip salmon, and transfer to oven. Roast 5 minutes (for medium).

Take out; season salt and pepper; drizzle some olive oil over it; and garnish with the flat-leaf parsley sprigs.

Preparation For the Salad

Place all the baby greens, the fennel, the apple in a large serving bowl.  Separately, whisk or mix together the olive oil, orange juice, and lemon juice, until they are thick and emulsified. Toss over the salad, sprinkle salt to taste, and add the pomegranate seeds.  Layer on top of the salmon or to the side, and enjoy!  Print the photo below for extra nutritional effect. 🙂

David Gandy: The Appetizer, Entree, and Dessert of Every Meal. 

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Day 23: Another teaser

Happy Sunday everyone! Hope you’re all having a quiet, relaxing day.  Mine is filled with laundry and waiting like crazy for the new Homeland episode tonight. #LetQuinnSurvive.   In the meantime, here is another teaser for you.  23 days left to Thirty Nights!  Spread the word and don’t forget to register for the giveaway.  Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for this story. xo, Ani

Tango Teaser

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Day 25: Meet the girl that bonds them – Elisa Snow

What can I say about Elisa?? Just the fact that at times, I know her better than I know myself. Because she tends to be on the expressive side, readers feel like they know her best.  But I bet there are lots of things about her you didn’t know.  Check out her new page and read some more.  Her background, trivia, her favorite things.  And her top rose breeds on the gallery in the side bar. Why do you think Aiden is so crazy about her?  Let me know your thoughts and I’ll tell you mine.  xo

Elisa Snow

 

Day 26: Tiffany’s Key Necklace Giveaway

Good morning!!  Happy Day 26!   What would a countdown be without fabulous jewelry and some man candy? To toast Thirty Nights in style, we are doing a giveaway that I wish I could win (but of course, I can’t).  Tiffany’s Iconic Key Necklace, in Tiffany Blue!! It’s reversible silver, so you can wear it on both sides.  Let me tell you, I stared at it for a long time—I’ve never been able to own something from that store. But I hope you can! I would LOVE it if the winner was one my readers, followers, and—let’s face it—friends!  Below are the pictures of the necklace and the link for you to enter the giveaway.  Sign up and let’s hope one you wins it!!!  And please spread the word: mention Thirty Nights to your friends.  Every time you tweet or share or say something about Thirty Nights, it helps! It really helps.  THANK YOU! (scroll below for the links, pictures of the necklace, and mandatory man candy because why not? It’s jewelry day!)

Enter the giveaway here  and here is the full link if for some reason you want it separately: https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/4cf78adb299/

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Tiffany Key Necklace Rerversible

 

 

Tiffany Iconic Necklace Box

And just for fun, I couldn’t resist these two pictures:  The first because … well, you need no reason to want to post it.  The second because they bear a resemblance to Aiden and Elisa together.  Happy Day 26!  Talk to you tomorrow!

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“Aiden” and “Elisa”?  I can kind of see it–definitely in him, a little bit on her, especially the rose earrings. 🙂

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Day 27: Meet Javier Solis and a little announcement

Good morning everyone! The countdown continues. 🙂  Learn some new information on Javier this time by visiting his brand new page and his gallery on the side bar menu.   You will see trivia, character background information, and listen to his playlist (which has a soft spot for me). Javier had so many fans when the story was first posted that now he is getting his own book:  the third in the American Beauty series!!!!  Yep, you saw that right.  Until then, check him out and see why so many of you are big fans.  I’ll be back with teasers and excerpts very soon.  Thank you for spreading the word about Thirty Nights.  xo, Ani

Javier Small for website

Day 28: A little interview with a cameo by Gandy :-)

Good morning everyone! The Thirty Nights countdown continues… this time with a little fun interview I did with another author: Kameron Brooks.  And look who stopped by to completely derail me.  David Gandy!!! (Ok, he doesn’t know, but in my head this is an actual date).  Hope you like the read, check out Kam’s own works, and stay tuned for more: we have more excerpts, teasers, giveaways, and other materials coming up.  Thank you for reading!

Author Showcase and Interview with Ani Keating

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Welcome, Ani Keating!!

  1. For those who might not be familiar with you, would you be a dear and tell the readers a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the writing business?

(Ani) Hi, Kam. Thank you for having me on your blog (I love the Superman gravatar).

I’m a lawyer by day (please don’t stop reading, it gets better) and a writer by night. I have settled in Portland, Oregon, after trying out a few other places, and I love it here.  Rain, green forests, bookstores, and coffee shops… I had no choice but to start writing. J  It was something I had always wanted to do—since my first short story in third grade—but “real life” took its course. College, law school, job, family… It wasn’t until three years ago that I finally decided to go for it. I got this idea in my head that just wouldn’t leave me alone. Next thing I knew, I was outlining, then opening an account on fanfiction, then posting chapters online, and the rest became a roller coaster ride. I thought I’d be lucky if I had one or two readers and they’d both like it. I ended up finding quite a few more, then an agent, then a publisher.  And now here I am, with my first novel coming out on November 17, 2015.  I’m still trying to catch my breath, but I’m so glad I started.  Being a writer is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do (and I argue for a living) but it has also been one of the most beautiful and fulfilling experiences of my life.

(Kam) Yeah, Superman ROCKS!! 

  1. All writers fear the dreaded “block”. Please tell us how you handle it.

 

Continue reading here and take a look Gandy! 🙂  See you soon!! xo

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Day 29 of countdown continues: Meet Aiden Hale

Happy Monday morning! Let’s start the week off right by talking about Aiden.  Of all my characters, I have received the most questions about him.  Take a look at his updated page here for new information about him, including his strong pet peeves, and even his reading speed.  Do you think the new trivia about him makes sense? Why? What is your favorite Aiden trait?  xo, Ani

Aiden Small for website

Day 29: Teaser

Good morning everyone! The “Thirty Days to Thirty Nights” continues.  Hope you like this teaser for Day 29– what do you think it says about Aiden?  I’d love to hear from you! xo

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Teaser 1: Thirty Nights

Hello all! On October 17, we will be starting our Thirty Days to Thirty Nights campaign.  Lots of teasers, excerpts, interviews, and more.  Let’s start a little early!  Here is a mini-mini teaser. Some of you will know where this is from.  Hope you like.  xo, Ani

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A big thank you!

Happy Sunday everyone! Two years ago, many of you helped Thirty Nights (back then Master’s Muse) become a loved story, a finished story, and now a published book (Nov. 17, 2015). For all that support, here is my thank-you in the official Acknowledgements page. Told you I’d try. 🙂 Unfortunately, listing everyone by name would be impossible with the publisher’s word limits. But I hope with this, you will know how much every click, review, and comment helped! And that I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you (and I hope you enjoy the new website and material)!  I’ll be back soon with more fun stuff (teasers, excerpts, oh my!)Acknowledgements

Surreal Things: First Author Interviews

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Happy weekend, everyone!

Why is it that the more real something becomes, the more surreal it feels? Like first author interviews, for example. Yeesh, puddle of nerves… Here is my first one with the resourceful Bryan Patterson. You’ll find some juicy bits about what’s coming, what’s happened, and a tinsy bit about me. Hope you enjoy!

xo, Ani

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I had the honor of interviewing writer Ani Keating, check her out and look forward to her upcoming book-

Me: So my first question is, for those that aren’t familiar with you, tell us some about you and your book
AK: For some reason, I always want to start with favorite foods (cheese) and favorite book characters (Brothers Karamazov), but that won’t get me anywhere. So here is the short version: I’m a lawyer by day and a writer by night. I was born and raised in a different country, which I have chosen to keep anonymous for now. I came here by myself at age 18 (wearing a bad pair of coveralls, which were considered fashionable at the time in my homeland).  Before I knew it, I was going to college, then law school, and then falling in love with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, All-American boy and the rest is…

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It’s coming! It’s coming!

For all of you who have wondered when exactly the release date is, you have an answer.  🙂 And for a bit of trivia, what’s in this release date?

  1. Almost three years to the day when the Thirty Nights idea was born
  2. Almost two years to the day when Thirty Nights started the publishing quest
  3. Almost one year to the day when Thirty Nights was officially submitted to publishers

Sometimes, coincidences happen. And sometimes it was meant to be.  I can’t wait for all you to read it.

xo, Ani

Release Date Announcement

Blurb and Tagline for THIRTY NIGHTS are here!

Happy Saturday everyone!

Hope you all have fabulous plans for the weekend. It’s raining in Portland, Oregon—which means it’s a perfect day for snuggling up with Baci chocolates and a good book (“Far From The Madding Crowd.” Thomas Hardy, Matthias Schoenaerts, and strong women—what can I say.)

It’s also a perfect day to post the blurb and tagline for THIRTY NIGHTS.  Just got them from the publisher and I’M IN LOVE!  Hope you enjoy them.  Here is the full blurb and an image of it below. Feel free to share them—I know some of you have already included THIRTY NIGHTS in your book club list. You rock! Thank you!

xx

Ani

AMERICAN BEAUTY SERIES, BOOK 1

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Thirty nights. Two hearts. One fate.mia-maid-rose_0

After her parents’ tragic deaths, Elisa Snow wanted nothing more than to escape her past. Eighteen and alone, she fled her quaint English village and moved to the United States. A starving science student by day and an artist’s muse by night, Elisa has slowly built a new life. She never dreamed she would lose everything again.

She is one week from graduation when her visa is unexpectedly denied. Given thirty days to leave the country, she must face the one thing she cannot survive again—saying goodbye and leaving her home. Yet within minutes of her world shattering, she meets a man with the power to piece it back together.

After finishing his tour of duty in Iraq, Aiden Hale traded battlefields for boardrooms, becoming one of the most successful venture capitalists in the nation. But all his wealth can’t buy him reprieve from the horrific memories of war. The only thing that gives him peace is a painting of Elisa.

Drawn together by their invisible wounds, they begin a passionate affair as they race against the clock to defy their pasts—and fight for their future.

Warning: Contains a blistering exploration of desire, sacrifice, and redemption…and love’s power to equalize us in ways laws cannot.

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