Crosstide Excerpt.

So… I noticed a little uptick in people following my blog, which I have neglected to the point of abuse so I’m sashaying in to offer SOMETHING new. I don’t understand “plug-ins” and other vagaries of this medium, so forgive me while I think about these things… and probably ignore them yet again…

Anyhoo, for all who are interested, here’s a pretty big excerpt from my WIP fourth, Crosstide:

Xanthe scanned the crowd for Peter, on edge because she assumed he was here somewhere. Despite having the man almost constantly in her thoughts – both here and while she’d ruminated on land – she’d successfully avoided him these past two months, and never mind how their years apart hadn’t ever seemed as consequential as the past eight weeks, the time between her revelatory visit to him in North Carolina and her return to Shaddox. She’d had to work hard to keep her focus away from Peter Loughlin.

The undercurrent established during their last exchange had altered their dynamic, however. Now she feared their progression was out of her control, which put her in an uncomfortable and unprecedented position of not being in control.

If she’d been able to avoid attending today, she would have.

But Aiden’s wedding to Maya had been cast as a state affair, a coming to terms by all of siren society with its new, more individualistic definition of normal. The celebration was to mark the ending of difficulties, community troubles resolved, and the advent of a happier future for all. If she’d declined to participate, she would have worried everyone, perhaps her friend, the queen, most of all. With difficulty, she’d set her selfish preoccupations aside and agreed to show up.

Even the invitation had rattled her composure. Because there she’d been, quietly brooding in the middle of some forest in Appalachia, tending to her existential issues under the shelter of solitude when a junior courier from the palace had appeared before her. She’d dropped into a defensive stance and hissed at him like a savage, hadn’t sensed him at all as he’d tracked her, and what did that say about the decline of her perceptions?

It said, she was sure, they were as dull as any human’s, which further underscored her lack of suitability as a senior siren government official, as if she needed more proof. The depth of her self-absorption surprised even her, though.

Apparently, having spent so much time alone, she longer recognized herself in company.

Her messenger, it seemed, had trouble recognizing her, as well. His expression alone told her everything she would have intuited had she been even a little aware – how wild she looked, how bizarre her affect. She reached outside herself enough to catch the nuances of his assessment of her… and she cringed. Her hair, she realized, was a tangled mess, her face and hands grubby. Her visitor’s eyes were wide, and he seemed unwilling to come closer. She realized he thought her crazed, unsafe.

She understood why: unable to fight the disintegration of her public persona, she fought a different convention, the one mandating a manicured and composed look no matter the circumstances. It was a petty stand, but she’d allowed her appearance to reflect the chaos roiling inside her and it had gratified her to do so, although she didn’t expect others to understand her logic. She’d also never expected anyone else to see her this way. She barked at her visitor to hide her humiliation.

“How did you find me?”

“P-Peter Loughlin sent me,” he stuttered.

Her distress escalated. She hadn’t been in contact with anyone, Peter least of all. Because after that last, excoriating self-review he’d gifted her with, she wanted nothing to do with him, reasoning in some dim part of her brain she could still, if she dissociated from him, un-have the epiphany he’d forced upon her. She frowned ominously at her messenger, reflecting on how easily their former prince had located her, and by proxy yet. What a galling obliteration, both of the front story she’d created to disappear, and of her belief in her own ability to stabilize.

She coached herself into a more graceful demeanor in spite of herself, meaning by the time the courier relayed the information he was sent to give her, he was slightly – slightly – less alarmed.

His news – Aiden and Maya were to be wed at the palace at the behest of the queen – hadn’t surprised her. The community needed such a celebration, and Xanthe’s presence was explicitly required for a show of bureaucratic unity. So of course someone had been dispatched to locate her. Given her unkempt exterior, she felt absurd as she did it, but she smiled regally, inclined her head… then swatted back a hank of matted hair as it fell forward. “Tell Carmen it will be my pleasure to attend,” she managed.

The courier had almost certainly reported to everyone back home the state in which he’d found her. Which meant Xanthe had taken extraordinary care with herself in preparation for today’s wedding reception.

Her return swim to Shaddox had relieved the better part of her dirtiness, and she’d worked through most of her hair with a skeleton comb along the way. She still entered the palace by stealth, choosing an infrequently used tunnel while most of the inhabitants were asleep. The night guards noted her presence without interest as she exited the central pool, and she proceeded unquestioned to her private chambers.

After a delicious bath and ten hours of undisturbed sleep in a real bed – she’d slept on everything from a rickety cot to a pile of leaves on the forest floor while on land – she arose better resembling the woman she’d once been. She ordered her favorite breakfast: cold-water oysters; poached eggs over black bread; and the darkest, richest cup of coffee the palace kitchen could brew. She savored the meal even as devoured it as if starved. When she finished, she dropped her napkin on the tray and reclined in her chair, feeling her worries lighten.

She summoned the palace tailors.

They arrived reluctantly, already crushed with demands from the other wedding guests. They begged lightly for her indulgence. Wouldn’t one of the many pieces they’d prepared for her in the past be suitable? She bullied them without compunction into service, and threatened them should she see another woman wearing so much as a scrap of the same material used in her own gown.

She questioned the palace hairdressers closely as well, planning her appearance with all the attention to detail she would have given a high-level diplomatic meeting. She was, after all, solving an image crisis, albeit one of her own making. Her appearance, at least, was one area of her life she could fully direct.

In the end she’d chosen a simple coiffure, a partial up-do secured with tourmaline pins gifted to her by the former queen, Kenna Loughlin. Xanthe had considered the merits of a more formal style that would reveal the graceful line of her neck, but her staff reported everyone else had that same idea. Her hair, outrageous even by siren standards, would show best if allowed to cascade down her back.

After her assistants proclaimed her ready, she inspected herself in the mirror and was glad for the trouble she’d put everyone through. No one who saw her tonight would accuse her of sartorial laziness or shoddy personal habits. Her gown, hair and make-up were impeccable.

She’d declined to attend the ceremony in order to ready herself for the after-bash… and to avoid Peter Loughlin for as long as possible. She’d also waited to enter the grand hall, hoping to blend in with the crowd and thereby avoid attention. Since peripheral entrances had been closed to maintain order, she’d had no choice but to approach publicly, however.

In spite of her discretion – and the ad hoc, occasionally distracting adornments sported by those who’d participated in the underwater portion of the day’s festivities – she still caused a stir, one she found superficially gratifying even as she hurried to remove herself from scrutiny.

The room quieted around her when she first appeared, the guests making way as she walked toward the throne, offering hushed compliments along with a heavy solicitation for interaction as she passed. She wondered if she shouldn’t have met selectively with some of them prior to today’s event, even though she suspected much of the awe she received was for how she looked, not her sudden return. Still, perhaps she could have demystified her absence better, maybe avoided some of the curiosity pouring her way now.

She couldn’t diffuse everyone’s focus on her, however, so she sidestepped it instead, setting her sights on her longtime friend, the queen. Xanthe knew her composure wouldn’t hold up under group questioning no matter how perfect she looked on the outside.

Carmen stood to greet her and shooed their onlookers away. “Back to celebrating, everyone,” she commanded. She extended her hands for Xanthe to grasp.

“Xanthe, my friend! You look magnificent. I’m firing the courier who said he found you a mess.” Xanthe laughed politely as they kissed each other’s cheeks.

“Don’t fire the poor boy. I wasn’t prepared for him. It was my fault.”

“But you’re back? And you’re well?”

“I’m well,” Xanthe assured her, and in one respect, she wasn’t lying. Carmen’s affection for her, as well as the familiarity of her surroundings, gladdened her. “I’m not prepared to resume my duties, but I have come to some conclusions.” Wariness colored Carmen’s regard. “Nothing for you to worry about, Carmen.” That was a lie, but one Xanthe needed to say given the occasion. “We’ll discuss these things some other time, not tonight.” She tilted her head toward the party underway.

Carmen’s expression relaxed. “You’re absolutely right – no business talk here. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”

Xanthe chatted easily with Carmen and several other members of the Blake family. She stood with them when the bride and groom entered the hall to applause, and she shared everyone’s delight in their freshly made commitment, her joy on their behalf genuine. She even embraced the couple and offered her sincere best wishes, which she could tell endeared her to Maya if not Aiden.

Peter seemed not have come… although he cloaked so well, he could be beside her right now and she’d never know.

After she’d nibbled her way through caviar-laden crudités and was pleasantly careless from two flutes of champagne, the orchestra began to play, drawing dozens of couples to the middle of the hall. She eased herself against a bar at the periphery, secure in the knowledge she’d acquitted herself well tonight. Her obligation was met. She would stay for two songs, then sneak off.

Peter stepped into her field of vision from several yards away. Xanthe. His unspoken call commanded her attention. Meaning she could not now pretend to have missed him, drat it.

He looked glorious, of course – he always did – although tonight his beauty struck her differently. He’d been raised in a milieu where a flawless presentation was habit… so the picture he presented should not feel remarkable. Or assault-like. In the moment she met his eyes then looked away – to protect what she suspected was about three more seconds of self-directed choice – she felt as if he’d issued a personal challenge.

She drained the last of her champagne, intent on making an exit.

Peter was before her by the time she lowered her glass. He removed it from her fingers and set it on the tray of a passing waiter. “If I didn’t know better – and to be honest, I do know better – I’d say you were avoiding me, Xanthe.” She gripped the railing at her back but kept her posture casual.

“Why ever would I do that?” she asked coolly. She pretended to take an interest in the couples gliding around the center floor. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him.

“Because our last encounter was…” and here he leaned forward, “intimate.” He straightened and finished crisply, “Also, you are still at odds with yourself.”

Time to go. She pushed off from the railing and smiled blandly at a spot to the left of his face. “A pleasure as always, Peter.” She pivoted away.

“Moonflower,” he said quietly. “Stay. Talk with me.” She stopped, enthralled by the pleasure his entreaty birthed within her, the joy she took in his desire to be with her. They were both emotionally hungry, she most of all, perhaps; and she closed her eyes, let herself relax into the companionship of someone who cared for her, someone she’d known her entire life and who craved her company specifically. Not with any of the capable luminaries around them, not just for the common connectedness they all sought. She also intuited his indecision where she was concerned, about how their relationship might or might not proceed… and she pondered the futility of avoiding him.

Curiosity – his and hers – gnawed at her.

He deserved better treatment from her, she knew. Xanthe faced the man who had become synonymous with her inner lack of resolution and returned to stand in front of him, although she kept a greater distance. Peter frowned but folded his hands in front of him, staying back. She regretted disappointing him yet would not commit herself further to their interaction.

Still, she apologized. “I’m sorry, Peter. That… that was rude of me.” She studied his lapel. “And you’re right. I am out of sorts.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what to make of our last conversation. Aspects of it, anyway.”

“Is that the reason for your shining beauty this evening?” he teased. “Are you playing a part?”

She bristled. “Well, yes. Not that I wanted it to be obvious.” Once again, she found herself off-balance in Peter’s presence, and once again, she yearned to deflect the confusion he evoked. She cast a covetous glance toward the door, envisioning the safety of her suite. “Now I feel vulnerable, which I do not enjoy.” She met his eyes. “As I’m sure you know.”

He tilted his head, considering her, perhaps kindly. “No one else sees anything amiss, Xanthe, just me. And I expressed myself poorly, so allow me to rephrase.” He stepped back and bowed before her, then spoke with unnerving sincerity. “You are breathtaking, and I am mesmerized.”

She blushed. Blushed!

She hadn’t blushed in… she couldn’t remember how long. Decades.

She checked his expression… and lost herself in it. He kept her gaze as he extended his palm, a request for her hand. She gave it. “Will you dance with me?”

She opened her mouth to decline…

…and found herself in the circle of his arms, moving among the throng of other couples.

It’s Release Day!

Yes indeedy, today’s the day for the debut of the third installment of my own little PNR suspense series. Share amongst yourselves…

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The Fourth Book I’m Not Writing.

As I usher Outrush, the third book in my PNR series, through editing and production, I confess to having set up a love story and drama for a fourth within it. I’m going on record as saying I’m not going to write it – I’m just not, people, so don’t pay any attention to these little asides I throw out that suggest otherwise. This development of scenes is an exorcism, and any minute, I’ll be purged and free, just you watch.

With that, here’s an excerpt from the book following Outrush (which again, I refuse to write!):

From Crosstide, Book Four of the Mer Chronicles by Errin Stevens

“Xanthe. Come back to me.”

She knew that voice, had been in these arms before… but maybe not. Maybe she was dreaming she was in a better situation than she actually was. She looked apprehensively over her shoulder toward the room she’d just left, the glow from the chandelier too bright, its illumination still touching her.

Like a prison searchlight when all good inmates were in bed, and she was an escapee in the yard.

She bolted deeper into the night shadows, pulling so hard on her companion, they both stumbled, and how odd for the laws of gravity to work in a scenario that didn’t really exist. Her phantom Peter steadied them.

“Moonflower.” His voice was gruff with emotion. He contained her struggling when all she wanted to do was run, flee to the ocean as fast as she could and find the deepest, darkest sea cave to hide in. “What did they do to you?”

Not that negotiating with a ghost would get her anywhere, but she decided there was no harm in responding. “You must be new here. If you show sadness, if you withdraw and dim yourself, they will kill you.” She checked over her shoulder again and frowned. “I don’t know why they aren’t coming for me…”

Peter shook her, pulling her attention back to him. “Xanthe. You’re safe. And they’re all dead. No one will chase you.”

God, but his anger was glorious, as was the unlikely assertion he’d done away with her captors. Still, she reveled in the reprieve, in the idea she had a true friend at her side. She studied his face, his ethereal beauty, then took in his confidence and self-possession, two attributes that would never survive in this place. He was so vital, so real. “What new trick is this?” she murmured, touching his cheek. He felt warm and solid, and yet couldn’t be. He flattened her palm against the side of his face.

He was too physically vibrant, too enticing. He was in fact a desperate hope she couldn’t afford to indulge, because to believe in him was to invite her own execution. She fought to get away, but he held her firmly… and even his strength, his illusory hold on her, was a solace. She stopped, leaned into him. Perhaps she’d snapped and her mind was forcing her into the conclusion she needed so badly, that she was loved and protected. But she still turned her head away, gazed toward the sea glittering under the high moon. If she could imagine Peter, she could imagine getting away from here.

Peter began to hum. The tune tugged at a memory, one she’d buried because it had made her too homesick.

A ball in a grand palace among her own people. A prince in fine dress bowing before her, his admiration evident as he paused over her hand to request a dance. Her worry at the time seemed absurd now, how she’d stewed over his interest in her and what she risked by allowing him to lead her onto the floor.

He swept her into a waltz.

The sights and sounds of that faraway time blended with the present, her old memories darkening as she and Peter glided and turned along the stone corridor. She relaxed against his hand at her back for every spin, trusting him to contain their momentum. And at each step, the music from their earlier encounter also bled away… until soon, all she heard was the deep, resonant voice of her partner, his breath intimate and warm in her ear.

The vivid hues from that long-ago celebration – the gowns, the floral arrangements, the garish towers of hors d’oeuvres – went last, their brilliance fading into a colorless but deeper, more private display. She and Peter performed alone here in moonlight and shadow, like a silent movie they enacted between the arches of the arcade. She began to watch Peter’s face, looking for further evidence of his actuality. His features appeared and disappeared, never displayed long enough for her to know.

At the end of the gallery, he stopped humming but kept her in his frame, as if they might dance again. He stood so close she could see nothing else, his chest heaving slightly from exertion. She watched the movement in fascination, reminiscent as it was of the waves she so longed for, the swelling, the contraction. She set her ear against his heart and let its rhythm absorb her. He cupped the back of her head.

A Real Life Love Story.

(originally published 6/25/2018)

This is the story of how I met my husband, Michael.

I was out with my cousin, Helen, at a bar in Minneapolis to listen to a beloved local band that had decided to reunite/play a late, impromptu gig. I was 27… and I never went to bars. Because I was chicken and didn’t like the predatory feel of the few romantic interactions I’d had in them. Meaning now there’s some irony to my forever-answer to the question, “Where did you meet your husband?” !! It had been more than a year since I’d been in a place like that after 10 p.m. on a weekend.

Anyway, the bar was packed – seriously, wall to wall people – but when we walked in, one of the guys playing pool near the back nudged his buddies and (as Mike revealed a few months later) pointed me out. This guy was/is a friend of my husband’s, and I’m told he said, “Look! There’s the next Mrs. Stevens over there.” Yep.

Eventually, Mike and his friends moved to the opposite side of the bar from my cousin and me… and they started trying to call me over to talk with them. I was not typically courageous in such situations, but I laughed at their airplane landing moves and walked over. The three of them were like wolves, surrounding me, standing too close and shooting rapid-fire questions – who are you, what do you do, where are you from – and I was so unnerved, I dropped my glass of beer. It shattered at my feet. All three guys immediately extended their own glasses toward me. “Here!” they said. I tried to laugh it off, to pretend this sort of thing happened all the time, but I was pretty freaked out by the intensity of their attention. I signaled to my cousin I wanted to get out of there.

Now, it must be said that Mike was the least aggressive of my male entourage that evening, and I found myself sidling toward him. He’s bigger than his friends, taller and more muscular… and I now think I was subconsciously seeking protection. And I’m 5’10”! No shrinking violet! Nonetheless, one of the other guys cut me away somehow to talk. During that time, a stranger slipped Mike a note – I’m truly not kidding – that said, “Get her away from them. She belongs with you.” I kept that note for years but somehow lost it during our last move, unfortunately.

As we were about to leave, Mike asked me for my number, and, sad case that I am, I said no, I didn’t give my number out in bars, but I would take his, which he gave to me. I slipped it in my pocket and expected never to call him. Helen and I left.

The next day – yes, the very next – I ended up calling him. I had tickets to a play at the Orpheum that evening, and the friend I was going with had a family medical emergency come up and couldn’t make it. So I called a few other friends, but they weren’t free, either. Over the course of two hours, I tried to contact every friend and acquaintance I had, with no luck. I called old high school friends. I eventually tried to give the tickets away to parents of friends, with no takers… meaning by the time I remembered I had Mike’s number in my coat pocket, I was in a snit. By then, going to that play with someone had become synonymous with not being a complete social loser. My self-esteem was fully on the line when I called Mike.

He later told me he knew – knew! – I was the one calling when the phone rang. I was courteous and professional. He was warm and confident. I told him I’d meet him at the theatre. He insisted on coming to get me. I let him.

We had a great time. Unlike the previous evening, Mike was reserved, respectful… which made me wonder if maybe he wasn’t into me. He kissed me chastely good night when he dropped me off. That time, when he asked me for my number, I gave it to him.

The final nail in our marital coffin, as I like to call it, occurred two weeks later when Mike took me out for Valentine’s Day. It was beastly cold out – I’m talking negative 30 with snow up to my waist. I was a working girl not making too much, but I did have a nice pair of leather gloves lined with rabbit fur, and I wore them to our dinner. When Mike dropped me off at my apartment afterwards, we realized one of my gloves had gone missing. We searched his car, didn’t find it, and I ended up leaving without it.

At noon the next day, the receptionist at my office called me up to the front saying there was a gentleman there to see me. It was Mike, looking semi-frozen and holding my missing glove. He extended it to me and reported, “I found it.”

People, I have lived in Minnesota most of my life and I know what someone who’s spent time in extreme cold looks like. In the space of a minute, I learned he’d taken the morning off from work, retraced our steps from the previous evening, and found my lost glove. My response? I thanked him, of course, but I didn’t have words to encapsulate the magnitude of what his effort represented to me. He watched me in that careful, intense way of his. I eventually confessed, “I have no defense against…. against whatever this is between us.” His expression relaxed and he smiled at me. “Want to go to lunch?” Yes. Yes, I did. I got my coat and took his arm.

Sometimes when I’m blue, I ask Mike to recount the story of when we met. He says for him, it was like getting “snake-bit,” was definitely love at first sight. I can’t say I was the same at our first encounter, but my ‘love at first sight’ moment happened two short weeks later. 😉

_____

Errin Stevens is the author of The Mer Chronicles series: Updrift (Book 1), Breakwater (Book 2), and coming soon, Outrush (Book 3).

Cello Babies.

(originally published 4/22/2018)

In my early 30s, I fell into an unlikely obsession with all things cello. I couldn’t have told you why at the time, although I’d identified a nagging sense of unfulfillment within myself, one I didn’t want to attribute to the correct cause. As it will do, life prodded me back onto the self-honesty platform… and the cello became my conduit, not that I understood back then how my preoccupation would develop.

But. It was a grand love affair that began with lessons on a starter cello marked with tape on the neck so I could learn to play in first position. I’d had ten years of voice and eight years at the piano, so I wasn’t as unschooled as I could have been, but I was still awful. With time, though – and, on a few occasions, earplugs – I managed to improve. Over the years, I progressed to a better cello, then to another; until eventually, I commissioned a custom instrument from American luthier, Chris Dungey. My baby was stunning and perfect and I named her Annabelle. I felt like the luckiest girl on the planet to get to play her.

My hidden unhappiness did not disappear despite my efforts and good musical fortune, however. My solution? Study harder! Broaden my cello horizons! Through the lens of relative sanity today, I can laugh at the absurd lengths I went to, from unearthing obscure video performances by Yo Yo Ma, Pablo Casals, and Jacqueline Du Pré (which led to a trip to London with my mother once and a search through Golders Green for Du Pré’s grave); to a private session with Minnesota’s former principal cellist, Bob Jamieson, wherein I was given the very undeserved opportunity to play his Montagnana and was rightly admonished afterwards to spend more time practicing, less time on history.

Outside of these shenanigans, my husband and I both worked for a living, in the same way people trying to advance do, which is to say excessively and perhaps desperately. We were also frustrated at the time that we hadn’t had children, even though initial tests revealed no reasons against parenthood for us. I thought it was perhaps my travel schedule or his, which often enough had us in different zip codes during key times of the month. I took a different job, and Mike started his own company to stay closer to home.

Toward the end of my thirties as we remained childless, I came to understand exactly what my focus on the cello distracted me from, and as rich as the study was, it wasn’t taking the place of what I really wanted. I began consulting with a fertility specialist, underwent three cycles of entry-level, drug-supported protocols. No dice, or rather, ‘dice’ in the form of an ectopic pregnancy and a burst fallopian tube, but no infant. The next step was invitro fertilization, which we tried and failed at. Did we want to try again? It was expensive, but we did want to try. I sold my cello on a gamble, knowing I might end up with no cello and no baby.

I remember with brutal clarity how my M.D. greeted me in the waiting room before the ultrasound and blood test that would confirm that next success or failure for us. I’d been giving myself hormone shots for over a year by then, had committed all of our emotional and financial resources toward the possibility of motherhood… and I was admittedly unstable. I barely controlled myself when Lisa took me, shaking and tearful, by the hand toward the imaging room. She hadn’t seen me since the day of the transfer, but she was optimistic. “You’re going to like what you see, Errin,” she promised. I didn’t and still don’t know how she could be so confident.

But she was right. One of our two embryos pulsed away on the monitor, and my blood test predicted viability. I was stunned. I was euphoric. My husband wept. Within a year we had our gorgeous, healthy little boy.

I haven’t touched a cello in years, but two months ago, my former teacher reached out. Her last student recently stopped playing due to health issues but wanted to know her cello was being used by someone. It was at our preferred luthier’s shop at the moment having some work done. Would I like to take it home and play it? The owner would be grateful.

Now, I’m just waiting for the call to go get it. I’ve dusted off my score of the Bach Cello Suites (and have my earplugs at the ready!), and I’ve dragged out my cello chair and music stand, putting them in the same corner of the front room where I used to practice. I’m looking forward to relearning the prelude for my son, who’s never heard me play. I’m grateful for the chance to change that situation.

Curious what my cello babies look like? Here they are. I love one a great deal more than the other… but apparently for now, I won’t have to choose between them.