Friday, February 29, 2008

Musings on Muses

Maven Jacqueline Barbour As I've mentioned several times already, I've been sick this week. As in hacking, sneezing, feverish, achy, "first you're afraid you'll die and then you're afraid you won't" sick.

What does that have to do with the topic of this post? you ask.

Well, the funny thing is, as unwell as I've been, I cranked out the word count this week. I wrote on the order of 10,000 words between Monday and Thursday, and 7,000 of those came over the course of a mere 48 hours. Even though the subject matter of the story was something I thought would be outside my usual comfort zone, those were among the easiest 7,000 words I've ever written.

The experience got me thinking about the fickle nature of muses or--if you prefer--inspiration. I have no idea why that story came to me so easily and why the other one I'm writing has been, by comparison, so excruciatingly hard. There's just no rhyme or reason to it. Both are plotted and fully imagined--in my head, at least--so there shouldn't have been any difference between writing one and the other. Except that somehow, one was there, and the other was just...not.

Now, I'd like to believe that the reason the other story isn't there at the moment is that there's still some element of it that my subconscious knows I haven't quite worked out, and once I do, the words will just be there. It's a bigger story (22,500 words compared to 7,000), so more needs to fall into place. And it's possible that's the case.

On the other hand, I'm mostly a ploddingly slow writer. I enjoy the process of crafting the visions in my head, but it takes me a long time to do it. I have to consider each scene, each paragraph, each sentence, each word as I write. Does it convey what I want? Does it fit with the rest of the story? Properly advance the plot, build character, impart emotion? The upside of this is that I don't tend to do a lot of revision after a story is written because I've been revising it all along. The downside is, obviously, that it takes forever to write the first draft.

I don't think the last two days' creative spurt has changed the kind of writer I am, either. It was just...vivid and exciting and different to write so (for me) quickly. A kind of high, in fact.

And I look forward to the next time the muse strikes me out of the blue. I just hope I don't have to get another raging case of influenza for that to happen!

YOUR TURN: Do you have a "muse"? Do you write on a schedule with a daily page/word count goal, or do you write only when the inspiration strikes you? Have you had a time when a story just rolled off your fingers with blissful ease? Do share!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Play Nice

Maven Lacey KayeLooks like the unofficial theme this week is bringing personal experience into our writing. I figure that means it's time to dust off the half-written post that's been up in my drafts folder since late last year and actually, uh, post it.

A defining moment in every woman's life is the day she realizes she looks and/or sounds like her mother. For me, that point of no return occurred when I got my Washington Driver's License. I took a good look at the tiny picture printed there beside my name, swallowed, double-checked the image (just in case), and put it into my wallet.

I vowed never to show it to anyone ever again.

A few years went by and I started to think maybe I had been wrong about the picture. Besides, the more years that passed by, the more I wanted someone to ask me for my license. (Another defining moment in a woman's life?) Then I got the brilliant idea to take my personal photographs to work and put them up as flare in my office. One day a picture of my mother at about 17 or 18 years old went up on my shelf at work. Next to it, and without first realizing the implication, I placed a picture of me at 19 or 20 sitting next to my mother at the kitchen table.

I uttered some very non-PC things, realizing there actually existed inarguable, side-by-side proof I am the spitting image of my mother...and that I probably have been a lot longer than I've wanted to accept it (or even noticed it). Not surprisingly, the people at work picked up on it really fast. At least three times a week I'm asked whether it's me or my mom in the black and white high school photo. I've come to accept it's not a bad thing to look like one's mother when one's coworkers stand and gaze at her photo appreciatively (usually citing that it takes them back to their own high school days...but I say, Go, Mom!). But I grew up hearing I looked like my father and my grandmother on my father's side, so when did I become my mother?

None of that is particularly related to writing, in case you were waiting for the aha moment. But something closely related to the looking like one's mother is the sounding like one's mother, and that IS a subject I can relate to writing.

I hear my mother speak far more often than I'm comfortable with! I feel it in certain non-verbal language I convey with facial expressions and recognize it in my patterns of speech. (Not always a bad thing -- my mother is a very funny person.) But if I could have just one of my mother's characteristics, it would be to carry on her rock-solid determination to treat all people the same no matter what other people think or say about them. In other words, there is nothing cool about being mean to people just because you can be.

In the last year or so, I've come to realize how often people look to each other to decipher the behavior expected of them in certain situations. When you meet at least one new person a day, it becomes second nature to watch for the verbal and non-verbal cues people give off about each other. It's a quick way to avoid most social gaffes...or at least, most perceived social gaffes. See a man walk into a room and everyone sits a little taller? Without asking, you get the idea he's a person of some authority. Or take my initial introduction to my dentist:

A new dental hygienist worked on my teeth for half an hour, (un)intentionally building trust with me. When the dentist came in, she treated him like an imbecile. She clearly had no respect for him or his ability to practice dentistry. She called him "Doctor" like it was a dirty word. As in, "Doctor, you forgot to get your pick behind you." "Doctor, you just knocked the hose to the floor." I decided then and there my dentist was retarded, instead of assuming my hygienist was a bitch.

...Which I finally figured out the day my regular dentist wasn't there and she had to work with someone else. Apparently, she's the smartest hygienist in the world and all the doctors at her office are morons.

Maven Erica is the one who made me realize how important it is to show the reader how other characters react to your character/situations so the reader knows how to feel about said situations.

Example: My hero is a snarky bastard, but he's not supposed to be unlovable. I routinely would write situations where he would tease his friends but not show the reactions of the people being snarked on. This was an important oversight. I needed to show reader that no one ever took him seriously enough to be offended. The result: People would read through a scene and come away wondering why he had any friends at all. With a few simple subcharacter reactions (or lead-ins), I can point the reader in the direction they need to look.

Another example: How many times have you ever read about the extremely youthful, virginal heroine with child-like beauty and been totally squicked out when the hero can't wait to bed her? But I read The Spymaster's Lady and never once shivered at the description. (Ok, I did once, but it's a perfect example of this subject in action: I had to reread when a man came to the door and said Galba's niece was a pretty child. I actually stopped reading to flip around and make sure no one else had stepped onto the scene, because I was that unused to thinking of Annique as a very youthful-looking girl-child.)

What are your characters saying about each other? What vibes are you giving to your peers or children when you see that annoying coworker or relative? Have you ever noticed how often people look to you to decide how they should treat other people (or react in various unpleasant situations)?

Recently, someone asked me to explain my job. I said, "More important than any one thing we put on paper (and don't get me wrong; we put a LOT of stuff on paper), my team is employed to bring order to the madness."

I surprised myself with that answer, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When something goes wrong, management is notified. Management then calls us in, briefs us, and sits back while we coordinate the various orgs to put together a plan that everyone can work with. Now, the various orgs are all schooled up in their Excel and PowerPoint. They could easily create their own solutions without bothering my people. The information we use to create those solutions almost always comes directly out of their heads, after all, so we're not there to tell anyone what they need to do to get their job done. We are there to force everyone to stop panicking and breathe. Because we are one step removed from the problem, we often have less at stake. The ability to project calm and order over an excited room is worth a lot of money these days, at least where I work.

What I'm saying is, it's human nature to look to others to determine how one should react...or maybe it's pack instinct and we're all barely better-mannered than wolves.

Either way, be nice to each other out there. People are watching :-)

Last week's example flurry worked really well, I thought. What are some examples of skewing perception in your life or in your manuscript?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ode to My Kitty

Maven Darcy BurkeMavenLand is a funny place. See, I had a deeply affecting weekend also, but not at all in the same way as Maven Carrie. But like Maven Carrie, I'm going to try my best to tie my life experience into writing. Actually, it won't be too hard. I'm nearing the end of Her Wicked Ways and can hardly stand to be not writing right now and pretty much every aspect of my non-writing life and writing life are blurring together. (Hmmm, how is being Girl Scout Cookie Mom feeding into my WIP? Must ponder...)

Friday evening we got some bad news about our beloved cat, Belle Kitty. Belle was a beautiful Maine Coon we adopted from the Humane Society (I picked her because she was cute, hey I knew nothing about cats!) as a kitten. Isn't she pretty? (She knew it too.) At 14 1/2 and after having diabetes for several years, Belle's kidneys were failing. She was fairly miserable and had stopped eating and drinking. Nevertheless, she still had plenty of love and bouts of purring to share, which made our decision to euthanize her on Saturday incredibly painful. Belle was my first cat and, truly, my first "baby." Mr. Burke and I can hardly remember a time when we didn't have Belle and of course she's always been in the Burkettes' lives. Our daughter, Quinn, is 7 and is doing pretty well with the loss. She's a smart, brave, and empathetic little girl. Every now and again she mentions Belle (today in the car she told me that Belle lived in our hearts, awwwww) and shows me just how resilient our spirits can be.

So what does this sad story have to do with writing? Especially since I'm not writing a sad story? Hopefully I am writing an emotional story and if nothing else, this weekend was an emotional roller coaster. And feeling emotional is a great way to write an emotional scene, right? Definitely! I was an actor in high school and college. Method actors (which I wasn't) live what they're playing. They completely plunge themselves into the character, the emotion, the circumstances. As a writer, I like to draw on personal experiences to really color my characters. As I write a scene, I (try to) put myself completely in the POV of that character, much as an actor inhabits the role they are playing. Since I am entering the last act of Her Wicked Ways, there are lots of juicy scenes with big emotion and huge stakes (I hope!).

I'm not saying anything new here, I realize. I've read plenty of blogs where people talk about things that get them into the mood of a character: a song, a scent, a picture. At the onset of a scene I try to think of myself as that character. What do they see, smell, hear, and most importantly feel? As I write my turning points and then storyboard, I think about the emotional arc of the character. Sometimes I even write the character's driving emotions on the scene notes.

Something else Belle's passing reminds me of is that like the books we write, we need dark days along with the ones when our heads are in the clouds (I've had a few of those lately, but more on that maybe next week!). Even terribly sad moments can be turned upside down as you celebrate a shared memory or find humor in something that can't possibly be funny to anyone not in your position (hopefully that makes some amount of sense). And every day is an adventure filled with high highs and low lows, all of it excellent fodder for the words we churn out every day.

Your turn: What helps you get in character? Are you a method writer? (Did I coin a new phrase? Doubtful.) Are there moods in which you write better/worse or more/less or just plain different?

Important Maven Note: Next Wednesday, be sure to stop by when Tanya Michaels/Tanya Michna will be here guest-blogging. I met Tanya at the Moonlight & Magnolias Conference in Atlanta last fall and we had a great time at our table! She's a multi-published author in several genres and reminds me that she was once a second place Maggie finalist, just like me!

Finally, sleep the good sleep our belle Belle Kitty.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Real Life Romance

Maven Carrie RyanHey Y'all! Big news in the Ryan-Davis household: soon we will become the Davis household! That's right, we got engaged this weekend! Yay!! The whole story is here on my blog and here x-posted on my livejournal.

JP was wonderfully romantic and the whole weekend was just amazing. I'm still floating with my head in the clouds, surrounded by a pile of wedding magazines and the knowledge that I have pleeenty of time before I have to start planning :) I just get to enjoy this moment.

And because this is a blog devoted mostly to writing, I've been trying to figure out how to tie writing into all of this somehow.... and here's my thought. People often say that truth is stranger than fiction and it's often true. I remember critting someone's partial many years ago where the first scene took place in a federal courthouse. JP just happened to be working in a federal courthouse at the time so I asked him questions about the authenticity of what she had going on (from courtroom stuff to courthouse security). Now, things differ from place to place and judge to judge, but our conclusion was pretty much that what she had set up couldn't/shouldn't/wouldn't happen. I pointed out a few things (nicely, natch) and got an email back telling me that what she'd described had happened to a friend and was authentic (and yes, I think the email said, "so there!").

But she was missing the point. It doesn't matter what *can* happen in real life or what *does* happen in real life, what matters is what is believable to the reader. So if the reader is questioning "could this really happen?" then the author should take a second look. I think this is sometimes the danger with writing what we know when what we know might be a little too outside the realm of believability.

How does this tie into my engagement story? Well, a few things I didn't mention in my other post.... first, about half-way through our reserve tour some guy came up and said that he too was supposed to be on the reserve tour. That really ramped up JP's tension because he knew (a) that guy wasn't on the tour because JP had bought all the tickets and (b) there was no way for JP to say anything without me getting suspicious. But our tour guide went to straighten it out and me, knowing nothing, went to follow him (in my defense, he beckoned us to follow him). And then a big fluffy cat walked in front of us and I said "Ooooh kitty!" and JP I know was thinking "ooooh, perfectly timed distraction!"

Second, when JP opened the ring box I swear one of my first thoughts was "ooh, the ring box has its own light to shine on the diamond! How cool is that?!" Not the most romantic first thought to have upon seeing your engagement ring. And it was only a fleeting thought (but seriously, how cool is a ring box with its own light?!).

You may still be wondering how this ties together and I swear that in my mind they did (yes, the same mind still floating in the clouds so you may have to be patient with me!). Sometimes there are details that really are authentic, but that feel a little wrong in the story ("ooh! Look at the light!"). But sometimes, depending on the story, those are the details that make a story actually feel authentic (seriously, who is ever able to pull of such an elaborate scheme without some guy claiming to be on the reserve tour and throwing in a potential wrench?). I guess the key is determining what type of story you're telling in order to figure out what details add reality and which don't.

Um, I hope that made some sort of sense. If not then...oooohh! Look! Sparkly!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sit and Deliver (with an Update)

Maven Jacqueline Barbour Hello, Mavenland! Long time, no see!

Is it just me, or does the pace of life seem to get more and more frantic and exhausting? It's been one of those weeks here in Jackieland. I won't bore you with the details, but I will give you a 30,000 foot overview. On Tuesday night, my ten-year-old son competed in a Battle of the Bands at the local middle school (they didn't win, but since they literally started practicing together last week, they did a fabulous job). The same kid is also crossing over to Boy Scouts on Sunday, which meant lots of last-minute scrambling to complete achievements and ranks and whatnot. On top of that, my younger son's sixth birthday is on March 2 and I've been fielding RSVPs for the party. (Thank God Chuck E. Cheese is doing the coordination, lol. I do believe this may be the first time in my life I've actually been grateful for the existence of such establishments.)

I think I have expounded before on my problem with goal-setting. Or perhaps, more accurately, goal-achieving. I have very difficult time adhering to them if I am the only person to whom I'm answerable for meeting them.

Yet, in the midst of all this madness in my "real" life, I have agreed to meet certain deadlines for completing the remaining novellas in my Gospel of Love series. Now, I don't mean to imply by this that the books are already under contract. They're not. But I do have certain timelines I have to meet if I want the four novellas to be released in short succession, beginning with According to Luke in June and ending with John in September.

Why did I do this? Because while I don't do goals well at all, I do deadlines fantastically well. There's something about having a hard and fast date by which a project must be completed that motivates me and keeps me on task. I am one of those people for whom the work always expands to meet the time available. If I have an indefinite amount of time to finish writing a manuscript, then I will take an indefinite amount of time to finish it. Meaning, in most cases, never.

I notice, however, that deadlines don't work well for everyone. In fact, I know some published authors who simply despise them. For whatever reason, putting their muse on a clock just makes them crazy. And yet, this is a business in which successful writers must be capable of working in both environments, to be motivated both internally and externally.

I'm still working on that internal motivation thing. I know I can sit and deliver these novellas on the schedule I've had set for me. I'm a lot less sure I can go on from there to write the "bigger" book I have planned for which I have no clear market, let alone no clear deadline.

Of course, now I am forced to confess that, even with all that external motivation, I didn't write a word yesterday (unless you count this blog post, lol). What did I do? Why, I built my very first book video trailer for Wickedly Ever After! It's not quite done yet--I still have to find some music I like and buy the images--so I can't share it with you today, And wow, what a fun way to spend several hours of my life. You can see the trailer here. And I must say, I'm quite pleased with the results.

YOUR TURN: What motivates you? Do you love deadlines or hate them? Do you love goals or hate them?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Read The Spymaster's Lady - An attempt at Reciprocal Pimping by Lacey Kaye

Maven Lacey KayeOh, yeah. That's what my avatar looks like!

Feel like I haven't posted here in ages. Or time flies. At any rate, I'm back, and this time, I have an Epiphany to share with you. Buckle up your seat belts, ladies and gents -- this is going to be bigger, badder, and better than ever.

Note: my office chair at work actually has a seat belt. After the Ergo department evaluated my office space and decided to remove the armrests on my chair, one of the "moonshine" guys came by and decided my seat now posed a safety hazard, so he brought in a seat belt and affixed it to my seat. When Lisa's armrests were removed, she got one, too. See? All the cool kids are doing it. And you thought I was kidding.

Buckled in? OK. Here we go.

This is one of those things you probably read on other people's blogs and go duh. I'm certainly not the first person to realize this, so I'm not claiming to be hiking mountains here. (For the record, I have hiked exactly one mountain in my life. It is an experience sure never to be repeated.) For some reason, even though I'd heard this a million, billion times and it is one of those things that everyone knows, I never truly understood the big deal. Of course your story needs to be the biggest, most awesomest story you can make. Duh, it's a book. We read it to escape things like my slog through 20 consecutive work days. (Seriously? Seriously.) But ask yourself this: Is it?

I have a vision for my Romance with Color label. It's overarching and dark and humorous and sexy and my characters are complicated, tortured souls. But I think my work falls short of that right now. They're not terribly active people, my people. They are afraid of obstacles and you know what? I am, too.

I'm pretty lazy. Dialogue and internal narrative are what I do well. Action...not so much. So I skip it. I write what I write really well, don't get me wrong. But my manuscripts are by no means as big and kickass as I want to believe they are. When I say big, I mean story-scope-wise. The fate of the world isn't on my characters. If my characters decide to crawl into a hole and die, maybe like five people would care. (Besides you readers, of course!) But they're not taking away anything anyone else really needs. The world isn't a better place because they're in it.

I finally had the nerve to plot the story I wanted to write in the first place, and daily I wish I were working on it now. (That would be my third manuscript, If You Asked an Angel to Love.) But I am a finisher, and I need to finish the book I'm writing now. I just don't need to finish If You Asked a Rake to Reform the way I was writing it.

Yesterday, Mavens Erica and Darcy and I talked about ways to make my story bigger. I was excited, and I know they were, too. I feel like this is the right time for me to realize this. (Okay, two years ago might have been better, but I know why I didn't -- that stupid market concept we're all told to be aware of, be wary of, and ignore.)

That's right. I scared myself out of writing what I wanted to write, which was totally stupid. I regret it now with the fire of a thousand Maven Darcy suns. I get a lot of feedback that the concept is good but the story doesn't grab from the partial. Well, of course it doesn't. It gets better as you keep reading because I got more comfortable with exploring outside the box I was writing in. I realized this on Saturday, when I had dinner with MaveFave and fellow Eastsider Keira Soleore. She was telling me about her Regency box and I was telling her that was totally stupid. Except I was doing it, too.

I worried that because I wanted to write multicultural stories I needed to keep everything else equal so I wouldn't blow myself out of a market. *Bashes head against nearest copy of The Spymaster's Lady* Stupid, stupid. There's nothing keeping multicultural from being published. I get requests all the time for it. The only thing keeping my multicultural story from being published is my nice, safe plot.

How safe is your plot?

A few weeks ago, I got a rejection that made me curse the publishing gods and duck the return lightning bolts. I told my friends that the Powers That Be are saying they want "different" but then I get rejected for the molds I do break (and certainly, I did break some molds with my manuscript -- don't let this post fool you. I'm getting to that part of it in like nine words.).

More stupid, stupid. They're not rejecting me because my story is too different or because readers won't read a super-alpha kickass female falling for a reserved wallflower hero. They're rejecting me because I didn't take that concept far enough and say to hell with it, I'm ignoring the boundaries and writing a HUGE story, one that couldn't be contained anywhere but in the pages of my imagination.

THAT'S the problem. I was afraid to write big. Afraid no one would want it. But as I said in an email earlier this week, I didn't write big *enough* to push my story over the wall of same-but-different and get into the land of stories like Outlander and The Spymaster's Lady.

We just replotted two threads in my current wip. I'm indescribably excited to start writing it. I want passion; there will be passion. I want danger; there will be danger. I want steamy -- characters as star-crossed as my characters are about to be are always hot.

I've already challenged Mavens Darcy and Erica (I challenged them, they challenged me, we challenged each other) to find a thread in our wips and make it bigger. It went something like this:

Me: Hey, guys, I think I need to write a bigger story.

Mavens: I'm so excited about this! So, whatcha gonna do?

Me: Uh. I dunno. You?

Mavens: (blankly stare at half-finished wips) Crap.

It's a conclusion we've all reached pretty recently in our writing journeys, which I think is cool.

So tell me now: how are you going to make YOUR story bigger?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

There Are No Small Characters

Maven Darcy BurkeFirst, a housekeeping note. We still need addresses from byrdloves2read and Bridget Locke so we can send you your prizes!

So while we were running our Valentine story, I banked a couple of blog ideas that came up as I was working. This one’s about secondary characters, something I struggle with from time to time. In Her Wicked Ways, there’s a secondary character who acts as a foil for the heroine. Or maybe her friend. Or maybe both. I’d write scenes with her and Maven Lacey would ask, “What’s Beatrice’s deal? Is she friend or foe?” I would scratch my head and say, “Uh, a little of both?” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to figure it out, it was that I wasn’t sure what her arc would be. And yes, I was surprised to find she has an arc. A good one too. She goes from a sheltered, country mouse whose parents control her every move to a self-aware young woman who has her own goals.

Speaking of goals, Maven Erica has said that every person who walks onto your page should have a goal for that scene (and it follows that they should have a motivation and conflict too, but I won’t overwhelm you today). I wasn’t sure what Beatrice’s goals were because I wasn’t sure how I needed her to weave into the story that I was trying to tell. Side note: I want to be clear that I try not to let my characters dictate what they’re doing. I used to think that so and so could do something because they just “wanted to.” But they’re figments of my imagination! If I’m having a dream about something I don’t like, I wake myself up and change the stupid dream! So, I demand that my characters, especially secondary ones, do what they ought in order to tell the story I want to tell. Thankfully, I’ve figured out how Beatrice can do that and it only took me two-thirds of the book.

Now that I think about it, maybe there are small characters. Some secondary characters are less dimensional than others and they have to be to keep your novel from becoming a cast of thousands and a ten-part series. For instance, Beatrice’s mother has a fairly minor role, but I know enough about her to add a bit of depth to the scenes she’s in. Other characters aren’t even secondary, they’re sort of “walk-ons” or “bit players.” Maybe the gardener or a grocery store clerk or a doctor. Those types of characters don’t have arcs (well, they don’t in my books), but they still might have a goal for their scene. A goal that could very well further your plot, provide a great opportunity for a main character to illustrate something about their arc, or instigate a fabulous scene disaster to foil your main characters. Oooh, I love scene disasters! But more on that another day.

Do your secondary characters have arcs? How about goals? Do you think about them well in advance or as you’re typing away do you just write “Dave skidded his bike into the driveway” without really thinking about who Dave is and what he’s doing there? Anything fun you discovered while you were writing recently? Do tell!

Hmm, some day I'm going to have to write about word ecomony. This post was twice as long when I wrote it and I've since edited it down to this. I'm just afraid that post might be about three sentences long.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Getting from here to there

Maven Carrie RyanSo I admitted to Maven Erica the other day that I'd started working on Book2 and the first thing she asked was "What's the first line?" It's pretty well documented here, on my blog, and on my friends' blogs that I can't start on a new project without the right first line. I've talked before about how this was a myth that I'd created (unintentionally) and how I wanted to bust it. Once I'd turned in final substantive edits on The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I knew it was time to start on Book2, but I didn't have the first line.

I tried all sorts of things: thought about the same things that brought me the first line to FHT, tried to feel inspirational when walking in the same place where I came up with the first line to FHT, stared into space trying to clear my mind of the pressure. None of that worked and I was getting fed up.

For anyone who hasn't heard Nora Roberts speak (or read an interview with her), she pretty strongly believes that there's no such thing as writers block. And here I was, not writing because of one stupid line. It's always been clear to me that if I wanted to be a professional writer, then I was going to have to get over things like this myth.

And so one day (when I was at work, sshhhhhh) I wrote a first line. And a second line and pretty soon I had about 300 words. I was terrified and elated and I sent them to JP and then paced around my office until he got back to me. His response: awesome! but I doubt that ends up being your first line.

Which made me laugh, because I agreed with him. But suddenly, it didn't matter that the first line wasn't perfect, because I was writing again. What did matter is that the words that followed were pretty darn good. And they led me to more words and more words.

And then I hit a scene that I knew wasn't cutting it. I just didn't "feel" the scene. JP read it an he agreed (I love him for his honesty) and for a while I was upset that it didn't work. And then I figured out a fix and I wrote the scene that way, but again... wasn't working. I waited for the despair -- for the fear that maybe I wasn't going to be able to do this writing thing after all. But I kept pushing (which isn't usually my writing style) and the thing is -- as I wrote the last paragraph I learned something new about the plot. Something I didn't know before. And then I was on fire -- 2k words in less than an hour (that's my writing style :)

The thing is, that scene that wasn't working? It's still not working and I'm still not sure if I want to keep it, if I want to revise it or cut it or whatever. But the thing that I DO know is that it got me from one point of the story to another.

So what's the moral of the story? Sometimes you just have to write something to get from here to there and sometimes what you're writing isn't the best but it does the job. Maybe the first line isn't perfect, but if it gets the story going, what else can you ask for in a rough draft?

What about y'all? What gets you from here to there?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Prize Jamboree!

Manuscript Mavens CatalogHere are the daily winners from our Valentine's Day Choose Your Own Adventure®! Thank you everyone for participating! Your prize is listed next to your name, so email us (mavens [at] to claim your prize!
Manuscript Mavens Catalog
Day 1: JENWRITER - choose any one of Colleen Gleason's books from

Day 2: HOLLI BERTRAM - Jody Wallace's new release, A Spell for Susannah

Day 3: KIM W - choose any one of Amie Stuart's books from

Day 4: HALFMOON-MOLLIE - choose any one of Debra Dixon fiction books from

Day 5: AMANDA - choose any one of Deanna Lee's books from

Day 6: KELLY R - choose any one of Karen Lingefelt's books from

Day 7: BRIDGET LOCKE - a signed copy of Stephanie Rowe's Sex and the Immortal Bad Boy

Day 8: KATHERINE C - a signed copy of Terri Reed's Her Christmas Protector
Manuscript Mavens Catalog
Day 9: BILL CLARK - choose Jackie Barbosa's Carnally Ever After, or the upcoming Wickedly Ever After or The Gospel of Love: According to Luke

Day 10: TETEWA - choose any one of Julia Buckley's books from

Day 11: LENORA BELL - choose any one of Virginia Henley's books from

Day 12: JILL JAMES - a signed copy of Julia Harper's Hot

Manuscript Mavens CatalogDay 13: BYRDLOVES2READ - a signed cover flat of Delilah Marvelle's debut release, Mistress of Pleasure and a copy of the book when it's released in September

Day 14: MARY - choose any one of C.L. Wilson's books from

And our grand prize winner who commented every single day is... B.E. SANDERSON! B.E., you've won a fabulous Maven prize. Nitkitty, tell her what she's won!
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"She's won a gorgeous new short-sleeved Manuscript Mavens t-shirt, perhaps with moi emblazoned on the chest. Quelle magnifique!"

(Bet you didn't know Nitkitty was French.) B.E. check out the Mavenabilia catalog over there on the right sidebar and let us know which t-shirt style you can't wait to wear, and we'll ship it to your door. You also win one of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books!
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Finally, the winner of our title contest is AMANDA with My Heart-Shaped Box. You've won a Manuscript Mavens mug! Please let us know which one you prefer (lots of styles and slogans!) and we'll ship it right out to you.

YOUR TURN: We don't want any of these prizes going to waste, so claim yours today. And as always, thanks for playing! Be sure to join us for another CYOA next time. (Whenever that is.) Meanwhile, stay tuned for our regularly scheduled Maven posts!

CYOA Valentine's Day - What's It Called?

Thank you EVERYONE for joining in our fun Valentine's Day Choose Your Own Adventure®. We could not have done it without our fabulous guest authors: Colleen Gleason, Jody Wallace, Amie Stuart, Debra Dixon, Deanna Lee, Karen Lingefelt, Terri Reed, Julia Buckley, Virginia Henley, Julia Harper, Delilah Marvelle, and C.L. Wilson. A thousand, million thank yous for your brilliance, wit, and support. And let's hear it for our home-grown Maven authors, Erica Ridley and Jackie Barbosa. Finally, thank you readers for making our blog so much fun every day of the year!

Now it's time to vote on a title! Following is a list of submissions posted after the last chapter. Vote for your favorite between now and 3 pm Eastern on Friday, February 15. Or, write in a new one! The winning title will be posted after 3:00 and its maker will win a fabulous prize! (Unless you choose one of Erica's titles in which case she'll get shanked. Just kidding.)

All I Wanted Was Some Chocolate
Big Nose, Big Package
Cara Heart's Heart: An XXXX-Rated Valentine's Day Romp
Cara's Heart-Shaped Box
Cara's Valentine
Cara's Valentine Confession
Cara's Valentine's Day Package
Chocolate, Hunks, and a Poodle
Cupid Strikes Back
Cupid's Machete
Dames, Danger, & Doggy-style
Dangerous Delivery
Dateless and Confused On Valentine's Day
Dog Run
Dogged Romance
Double Trouble
Feelin' Lucky?
Flasher In The Woods
Following Cara's Heart
Give Me Chocolate or Die
Good Things Come in Large Packages
Grooms, Guns, and Godiva
Heart Shapes and I’m Not Talking Chocolate
Hearts and Shamrocks: Creative Shaving Techniques for All Occasions
Hearts, Hunks, and Happiness
How I Met the McStudMuffin
How to Carve a Poodle
How to love a Man Without chocolate
I Swear I Didn't Order A Stripper
Is That a Poodle in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
Jayson and the Golden Fleece
Love Unleashed
Love and the Package
Machete Mayhem
Machete of Love
Machetes Are a Girl's Best Friend
My Heart-Shaped Box
Not Without Chocolate
Of Pelts and Fur
Oh Noes! It's Valentines Again
Pistols and Poodles
Poodle Love
Poodle Packing Grandmas
Posh Poodle’s Valentine Surprise
Puppy Love
Secret Agent Stripper
She Stole My Face, So I Stole Her Boyfriend
Shootout in Cara's Corral
That Ain't A Gun In His Pocket
The Bad Girl's Guide to Grooming
The Lady or the Poodle?
The Many Faces of Cara
The Nose Knows
The PETOP Caper
The PETOP Fiasco
The Package
The Poodle Caper
The Problem of the Purloined Package: A Valentine's Day Mystery
The Secret Agent Tycoon's Texas Cowgirl Valentine Surprise
The True Story of Ms. Cara Heart's Unforgettable Valentine's Day
The Valentine's Day Almost-Massacre
The Valentine's Day Machete Massacre
The Way to a Girl's Heart...
Twinkles' Machete Valentine's Day Surprise
Valentine’s Day Fiasco
What No Chocolate?
What’s Valentine without Chocolate
When the Doorbell Rings

Check back after 3 pm Eastern to see whose title won, and for a complete list of prize winners. A winner every day! A grand prize winner! A title winner! It's raining winners!

So what's it going to be? Jayson's Golden Fleece, Machete of Love, The Package, or Cara's Heart Shaped Box? Or something else? Or how about If You Show Me Your Heart, I'll Show You My Package?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's CYOA, Chapter 14

Happy Valentine's Day! And welcome to the final chapter in the Maven-style Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU voted on what happens next!

If you've voted, you're eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens!

(More info: here. For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.)

Chapter Fourteen

I dove for the machete.

"All right, I've had enough!" I screamed, brandishing the machete like an unlimited charge card at a Nordstrom's One Day Sale.

"Holy crap, Mel! Take it easy with that thing." Jayson held up his hands, eyeing the slashing blade with genuine concern as one of my wilder swings nearly reduced his condom size from Emperor to Mini Mouse.

"Take it easy? Take it easy! It's freakin' Valentine's Day! My house is shot up, my pool's shot up! Harold here busts in waving guns in my face-and neither one of you boneheads who claims to love me has sent me anything for Valentine's Day. Not even chocolate!" I gave a primal scream and leaped towards Mr. Lexus, slashing the machete through the air again for emphasis. "I need chocolate, dammit! I'm a woman on the edge!"

Mrs. Peterson's poodle, agitated by the whipping edges of the sheet wrapped around my body, leaped from her arms and attacked my sheet hem in a wild poodle frenzy.

The sheet fell free, giving gun-toting Harold an unimpeded, eye-popping view of my naked boobs and whimsical heart-shaped trim job.

He dropped his guns. They went off with a bang.

I screamed and lost my grip on the machete. The poodle burst into a series of earsplitting yips.

Mrs. Peterson cried, "Twinkles!" as tufts of curly white poodle hair flew up in the air.

Jayson dove for the guns and wrestled Harold for possession. I dove for the machete and wrestled the poodle trying to get my sheet back. Thanks to my accidental machete whack, the aggressive little furball now sported a half-mohawk instead of her earlier neat poodle poof.

Mrs. Peterson leaped towards me with a maniacal look in her eye. She plowed into me, grabbing my machete wielding hand in a surprisingly firm grip.

I grunted as I hit the floor. The pair of us grappled for control of the machete while Jayson and Harold continued duking it out over the guns. Mrs. Peterson and I rolled back and forth, the machete waving wildly. Twinkles yipped again. More poodle hair flew.

Mrs. Peterson caught a handful of my hair and yanked hard. I replied with a sharp jab to her left cheek.

Her nose came off in my hand.

"What the--?" I stared in horror at the pulverized proboscis in my palm. Holy crap! I raised slow, fearful eyes to her face. One too many late night zombie movies left me half expecting to see some gory gaping hole where her nose had been.

Instead, I found another nose. A smaller, definitely younger looking nose. Sticking out from the hole in her face where her other nose had been.

"What the--?" I muttered again.

Mrs. Peterson gave a shriek and the battle for the machete resumed in earnest. Two more chunks of the woman's face fell off during out struggle, and her normally neat gray bun-a wig, I now realized-skewed around sideways to hang over one ear like a furry one-sided ear muff, then fell off completely to reveal long blonde hair. Who was this woman?

The click of a cocking gun hammer made us both freeze.

"Get up." Jayson held one gun to Mrs. Peterson's head and kept the other pointed at the now-subdued Harold Peterson. Jayson spared a quick glance and a charming grin for me. "You okay, Cara?"

I nodded. "What the heck is going on here? Who is she?" I grabbed my sheet and wrapped it around my body-or at least the parts of it that weren't being enthusiastically masticated by Twinkle's tiny canines.

Jayson prodded Mrs. Peterson with his gun. "Ditch the disguise."

With a fulminating glare, Mrs Peterson peeled off what was left of her crumbling flesh-toned mask.

"Cara Heart…meet Imelda Branchos."

Imelda? "But I thought-" I broke off in confusion. It was very late, and I'd had all the twists and turns I could take for one night. None of this made any sense. "If she's Imelda, then who was the other Imelda? The one who looked like me?"

Jayson shrugged. Magnificently. I have to give props where they're due. The man had a fine pair of shoulders. "One of her look-alikes, no doubt, meant to throw us off the track of the real Imelda."

"I don't understand."

"I'm finally beginning to," Jayson said. "It's a triple cross. Mrs. Peterson-the real, Mrs. Peterson-is the treasurer of PETOP, and she had access to all the accounts. Imelda must have seduced dough-boy here into double-crossing his grandma, stealing the account access codes, and then set you up, Cara, to take the fall when the money came up missing. All while she passed herself off as the innocent Mrs. Peterson and waltzed away scot-free with two million Euros. What'd you do, Mel, sleep with the delivery van guy so he'd purposely deliver the money to Mrs. Peterson instead of Cara?"

"What?" Harold stared at Imelda in shock. "You meant to have the money delivered to Grammy? You were planning to take it for yourself all along? You mean…you don't really love me?"

"Of course I don't love you, you buffoon!" Imelda sneered. "Who could love a whiny little grandma's boy like you? My plan was brilliant-and it would have worked too, if not for you, Brant, and that cheap little tart-and that little dog too!"

Twinkles, now sporting a full sleek and spiky Mohawk and a kick-ass abstract body-shave, growled, gave a series of ear-splitting high-pitched barks, and trotted over to lift a leg over Imelda's furry pink bunny slipper.

"Why you mangy little-"

"Hey!" I snatched up Twinkles and glared at the pretend protector of poodle pulchritude. "Back off the dog."

An hour later, as the clock struck midnight on my sex-and-chocolate deprived Valentine's Day, I stood beside the bullet-riddled remains of my front door and watched Imelda Branchos and Harold Peterson ride away in the back of an FBI vehicle. An ambulance carrying the real Mrs. Peterson, who'd been discovered in her bedroom closet bound with a dog leash and gagged with a chew-toy, had left a few minutes earlier.

Once again fully clothed and looking positively edible, Special Agent Jayson Brant stood on my front porch and said his goodbyes. "Look, I've got to wrap things up at the office, then fly up to DC to tie up loose ends with the PETOP task force. I don't know how long I'll be gone. A couple weeks, at least. Maybe I'll see you around when I get back?"

I smiled-bravely, I thought. "Sure. Around." I'd dated enough sexy hunks to recognize a euphemism for never when I heard one. This was it then. Finito. A crappy end to a crappy Valentines. I clutched Twinkles, whom I'd agreed to poodle-sit for the night, and tried not to cry as the hunkiest man I've ever almost had sex with prepared to walk back out of my life. "I understand."

"Brant!" Jayson's partner shouted from the car by the curb. "Let's move!"

"Gotta run." Jayson leaned down to give me a quick kiss…then lingered to turn that kiss into a bone-melting, better-than-chocolate, tonsil-tickling smoochfest. The kind of kiss that made me forget about chocolate and flowers and crappy Valentines and start thinking about supersized condoms and trying all sixty-four positions of the Kama Sutra. When the kiss ended, we were both breathing hard. "See you around, Cara."

Then he was gone. When the tail lights of his black sedan disappeared around the corner, I glanced down at the Mohawk-sporting poodle in my arms and sighed. "Got any chocolate covered dog biscuits, Twink?"

* * *

Four weeks later, my newly-restored doorbell chimed. I peered through the peephole of my brand new, bullet-hole-free front door and found the entire fish-eye lens filled with the padded scarlet satin of large heart-shaped box.

"Special delivery for Cara Heart."

I knew that voice. Low, sultry, as meltingly sinful as my favorite chocolate. I unhooked the chain and opened the door.

Wearing a pair of snug jeans and a black leather jacket and holding the biggest box of chocolate I'd ever seen, Special Agent Jayson Brant flashed his killer smile and said, "Hi Cara. I've got a package for you."

"I can see that," I purred, but I wasn't looking at the chocolate. I stepped aside to let him in, taking the box of chocolates from him and tossing them on the entry table. "It's a little late for Valentines."

"Don't say that." He bent down to nibble my lips. "I was hoping you'd still be wearing your heart."

"Sorry, Jayson." I shook my head. "I'm celebrating St. Paddy's Day now." As his eyes lit up, I gave a sultry smile and guided his hands to my jeans. "Feeling lucky?"

YOUR TURN: Now that we've reached The End, what are we going to call this puppy? Leave your title suggestions in the comments (as many as you can dream up!) to be eligible for more great prizes!

Today's installment brought to you by C.L. Wilson. Comment with title suggestions to win a copy of your choice of New York Times best-selling C.L. Wilson's books!

Don't forget to join the Manuscript Mavens' quarterly newsletter on the right for advance notice of other exciting upcoming events!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's CYOA Chapter 13

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Thirteen

I was frozen in a muddy mixture of lust, confusion and horror when…

Mrs. Peterson and her poodle burst into the room.

"Cara, he's coming!" Mrs. Peterson frantically yelled. "He's--" The old woman screamed the moment she saw the two of us in doggy style mode and immediately buried her face into the poodle she was holding. In turn, the poodle started barking at us in frenzied high pitched yaps, its beady little eyes reflecting about the same amount of horror I felt.

Obviously Mrs. Peterson wasn't yelling about Jayson coming. 'Cause we hadn't even freakin' started. Which meant someone else was coming.

If I had failed to mention it anytime before, people, my Valentine's Day sucked. Blowed. Yeah, that's right. You'd better notice the continual use of sexual innuendos. Because this is about as much as any of us were gonna get.

I snatched the sheet off the bed, in an effort to shield myself and scrambled off the mattress, knocking Jayson's naked butt off to the side. "Who's coming?" I demanded, wrapping the sheet tightly around me in a make-shift toga. "Who?"

Though Mrs. Peterson had stopped screaming, her poodle certainly hadn't. "My grandson!" she yelled over the yapping. "He's coming! And he says he's going to kill us all!"

Great. Now there was a grandson. Who was obviously pissed out of his mind. Like everyone else.

"Hello Mel. Hello Brant. Grandma. Let's finish this once and for all."

A cold knot formed in my stomach as I froze right beside the open door of my closet. Mr. Lexus himself stepped into the bedroom holding not one, but two guns in our direction. His hair stood up on all ends and his clothes and face appeared to be smeared with...something. Like he'd been rolling around in garbage. And the smell! Ugh! Jayson hadn't been kidding when he mentioned taking Mr. Lexus to the dump. Though clearly, Jayson hadn't dumped him far enough.

Everyone, including Jayson who had just finished yanking on his jeans, stilled and fell into complete silence. Everyone except for the poodle who kept right on yapping, only this time it focused all of its attention on Mr. Lexus as it pawed the air and leaned out of Mrs. Peterson's arms.

"Shut the dog up!" Mr. Lexus yelled, snapping one of the guns in the direction of the dog. "Shut him up before I blow the fur off his ass!"

"Harold, no!" Mrs. Peterson shielded her dog as best she could, and even tried to place a shaky hand over the dog's mouth. "Why are you doing this? You were supposed to help me and PETOP! Not cash all of our donations and take it for yourself!"

Harold? Pfff. I think I liked Mr. Lexus better. So anyway--

"Help?" Mr. Lexus snarled, flinging something mucky off to the side and leveling his gun back at her. "PETOP is nothing without me! Nothing! And I'm tired of not getting paid! I need the Goddamn money more than your stupid dogs!"

"It's finally catching up to you, Harold," Jayson finally said. "All of it. You might as well give it up." Jayson gestured toward me. "Mel, tell him."

The Mel bit I got. Been there, done that. But the whole telling him bit? Nope. Didn't get it. At all. Was I supposed to make something up? My brain wasn't exactly in high powered mode as of now.

Mr. Lexus snapped his gaze toward me and narrowed his gaze. "Couldn't do it, Mel, could you? Couldn't knock Brant off even after you told me over and over that you could. Told me that after we knocked him off and collected the money, we would quietly take off to Brazil and have a couple of bambinos. Were you lying to me? Is that it, Mel?"

I cringed and glanced over at Jayson, having absolutely no flippin' idea where I was supposed to take this. I hoped to God Mr. FBI man had something else up his sleeve. My brows came together. No, wait. He wasn't even wearing a shirt. Crapity, crap, crap, crap.

Jayson's dark eyes darted over to me. He slowly lowered his unshaven chin and there was now a dangerous look about him. "So you were planning to knock me off?" he hollered, angrily waving a hand toward me. "So was this before or after you claimed to love me? I thought we had something special."

Great. The guy was going to get us all shot. In the head. If only...

I paused, suddenly remembering something, and out of the corner of my eye glanced toward the open closet next to me. And sure enough, in full view was my black leather handled iron machete. Right next to my collection of thigh-high vinyl stilettos. Bingo.

Though come to think of it...I hadn't really done too well aiming a gun, had I? The likelihood that I was going to skewer everyone in the room, including myself, was probable. Very probable.

"She doesn't love you, Brant!" Mr. Lexus now pointed both guns at Jayson. His hands were visibly shaking, as if he'd pull both triggers at any moment. "She can't stand you! Tell me all the time about how you're always taking her assignments, making her look bad! She loves me, damn it! Me! Ain't that right, Mel baby? Tell him!"

Whoa-whoa-WHOA! To go from absolutely no dates in two years to two desperate proclamations of love in a single night was WAYYYYYYYYYY too much for this sleep deprived girl to handle. Which is why you could say I finally lost it. But then it's not like I had much to lose (well, except maybe my life, ehm). So I...

A.) dove for the machete.

B.) sucked it up and played the greatest role ever bestowed upon a non-Hollywoodonian. Placing my hands on my sheet wrapped hips, I casually turned toward Jayson and drawled, "Brant, honey, I'm sorry. I was just using you. Using you all along."

C.) screamed at the top of my lungs, "The first man to bring me a box of chocolates is who I'm going with, people! And I mean it! It's freakin' Valentine's Day and I want my chocolate!"

D.) stripped the sheet from my body and tossed it off to side, ready to use what my Mama gave me. And of course, save us all.

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day---Tomorrow's story continued by C.L. Wilson with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Delilah Marvelle. Vote to win a signed cover flat of Delilah's debut release, Mistress of Pleasure, and a signed copy when the book comes out in September!

Don't forget to join the Manuscript Mavens' quarterly newsletter on the right for advance notice of other exciting upcoming events!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Valentine's CYOA Chapter 12

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Twelve

His hands caressed my belly, then stroked my thighs, until I began to writhe. He was dark, dominant, and dangerous, and I wanted Jayson Brant more than any man I'd ever known. I raised my hands and stroked down his broad, muscled back as our tongues tangoed. By the time I reached the waistband of his jeans his tongue had taught mine to fox trot and was now demonstrating a little known rumba from the highlands of Chile.

We staggered together toward my bed—which I’d made that morning, oh, thank you, God!—and fell together. He rolled, placing me firmly underneath, and reached for the zipper of my jeans. A short tussle later and I was naked as a jay bird and he was examining my creative shaving technique.

“Nice,” he said huskily as he traced my heart-shaped pelt. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“You should see how I celebrate Halloween,” I purred, batting my eyelashes. He blinked and then a corner of his mouth kicked up. “Oh, yeah.” His fingers had reached the point of my heart and I arched as he delved below the point, hitting the right spot on the first try. I do like a man with a sense of direction. I clutched his round, firm butt and gasped, “Bedside table.”


I felt myself blush. “In the bedside table. I’ve got condoms.”

He smiled, slow and sexy. “They won’t fit.”

I felt heat pool low in my belly. “But they’re extra large.”

“Cara mia,” he whispered in my ear. “I take extra, extra, extra large.”

Oh, God, a size Triple X condom? I’d heard tales whispered in smoky bars just before closing from women who’d had way too many nachos and Long Island Iced Teas, but I’d always thought the fabled Triple X was a myth. Had I just hit the orgasm lottery or would I be crippled for life? I looked up at his face, dominated by a nose of epic proportions. Either way I was about to find out tonight.

Brant reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a foil packet the size of a paper napkin. It was black, it was shiny, and three giant X’s were embossed on the surface. I watched as he tore the packet open with his teeth. What emerged was purple with pink racing stripes and a growth at the tip that wouldn’t look out of place at an ocean aquarium.

He arched a brow just like Spock when he was about to tick Dr. McCoy off. “I hope you like

I was so excited I almost embarrassed myself by coming right there.

He had his jeans, socks, and shoes off in seconds. When he rolled to his back to sheath himself I think I may’ve heard a heavenly choir. Praise be, the schnoz did not lie. This man was hung like a Clydesdale.

I stretched welcoming arms to him. “Oh, baby!”

But a slight frown marred his handsome, big-nosed face. “Would you mind, uh, rolling over?”

Of course not. If he’d ask that we do it in a bathtub filled with green jell-o I would’ve hopped right in. In fact, so in lust was I with both the man and his magnificent member that it wasn’t until he was at the point of no return, so to speak, that the sinister nature of the position we were in hit me.


The words whispered ominously in my brain even as my lover rustled behind me, trying to get just the right angle of approach. Could the tale Imelda Brachos told me in her car be true? Could Brant in fact be a member of PETOP—People for the Ethical Treatment of Poodles?!

I was frozen in a muddy mixture of lust, confusion, and horror when . . .

A) Brant leaned down and whispered, “Can you bark like a dog?”

B) Mrs. Peterson and her poodle burst into the room.

C) Brant did something that made me lose all coherent thought.

D) I remembered that I was a lesbian.

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day---Tomorrow's story continued by Delilah Marvelle with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Julia Harper. Vote to win a signed copy of Julia's latest release, Hot!

Don't forget to join the Manuscript Mavens' quarterly newsletter on the right for advance notice of other exciting upcoming events!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Valentine's CYOA, Chapter 11

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Eleven

I stared at him, shocked yet relieved. "So here's a new plan," I said. "You distract him, and I'll get the money."

"That could work," he said, touching my hair. "But I have a feeling you could distract him better."

"Fine," I said. "I'm getting tired of the present company." And I left him sitting there on the couch while I donned a black jacket and some quiet shoes.

He moved like a panther toward the window. "Hold it, Cara. Looks like Mrs. Peterson is leaving with the cops."

I glided silently toward him and looked for myself. "She's taking her poodle with her. I bet she gave the police no choice. She's a feisty old girl, who'd likely kill for that dog."

"That's the way all animal owners should be."

So Steely Muscles is an animal lover. I felt my heart begin to melt, and warned myself to toughen up. When the police cars left, and the street was once again silent, I moved toward the door. I held my breath, waiting for Brant to stop me.

"You'd better hurry, before he gets out of his car and heads to her house to search for the money."

I had a strong urge to kick him between his two big toes. Instead, my resolve hardened and I slipped from my house, and keeping to the shadows, emerged right beside the sleek car.

"Hello, Mel. I was expecting you to pop up any minute."

Damn, he knows Imelda, but I don't have a clue in hell what his name is. "Well, well, Mr. Lexus. Seems we're both hot on the trail."

Through the open car window, he grabbed my hand. "You're always hot, Mel baby." He gave me a look that scorched my skin. I could almost smell the lust. He terrified me, but I'd be damned if I'd let him know it.

"Looks like a draw to me. Why don't we strike a deal, and share the spoils?"

"I might consider your suggestion," he said, running his tongue around his lips, "if you'll throw in a bonus."

"Like hell! We split the Euros fifty-fifty," I said, stalling for time.

His smile was lewd. "You know that's not the bonus I mean."

Mr. Lexus man wasn't talking money, he was talking sex, and we both knew it. I wanted to run, but his grip on my hand was like a vice, and I stood rooted to the spot. I licked my lips nervously, and the swine took it for a sign that I would accommodate him.

"Good girl. Get in the backseat."

"You've got to be kidding!"

He opened the driver's door and got out of the car, but he never let go of me. He was short and thickset, the kind of guy who possessed brute strength and wouldn't hesitate to use it on a woman. He opened the back door of the Lexus, but before he shoved me inside, he brought up his other hand, slid it inside my coat, and squeezed my breast hard. "We won't hurt each other, will we, Mel baby?"

I believe in tit for tat. I brought my knee up swiftly between his legs. He let go of my hand and doubled over. I looked straight into the angry eyes of Jayson Brant. He brought the butt of his gun down on Texas Lexus's skull, and shoved the randy bull into the back seat.

"Get the box from Peterson's house. I'll make a quick run to the dump and be right back."

My legs trembled as I made my way down the street to Mrs. Petersons. I was relieved and, yes, I hated to admit it, but I was grateful to Mr. FBI man.

I opened the door with the key, and went inside. I didn't need to turn on a light, because the moon had risen and its glow came in through the front window. I saw the red, heart-shaped box immediately, and my spirits sank lower than a snake's hips when I saw it was empty. "Crap! The cops got the money!" I refused to believe it. "Maybe not. Something tells me Mrs. P is one crafty old gal."

My eyes slowly traveled around the room and came to rest on her big old knitting bag. Pure instinct drew me across the room. I went down on my knees, and pulled out some wool and needles. "Crafty indeed!"

The bag of Euros was pretty heavy, but I was so thrilled with my amazing discovery, I managed to haul the loot back to my house, and sank down on the couch to catch my breath.

The door opened. I thanked God and the Devil that it was Brant. "Did you get it?"

"She hid the money in her knitting bag." I held it up gleefully.

"You are one helluva smart, brave woman, Cara mia."

I suddenly began to shiver with delayed reaction. "I'm cold."

"That's because the window was shot out. You need some coffee."

We went into the kitchen and I made some coffee. When it was ready, Brant took a small silver flask from his leather jacket and poured whisky into the steaming mugs.

I took a few sips and groaned. "Hot damn, this is better than sex."

"If that's true, you've had very inadequate lovers, Cara Heart."

As we finished our coffee I glanced at the clock on the stove. "It's eleven o'clock. It's still Valentine's Day."

He took my empty mug and set it aside. "That gives us only one hour to celebrate this special day for lovers." His voice was husky, his hand warm and possessive as he took mine and led me to the bedroom.

I felt breathless and intoxicated, but I knew it wasn't from the whisky. He covered my mouth with his and kissed me. Thoroughly. His lips were demanding, and I gave myself up to the pure splendor of the man.

He slid off my coat, and what was underneath it. His firm fingers made short work of my lacy bra. He took off his own coat, and the turtleneck, then his powerfully muscled arms enfolded me, and we slipped down to the bed.


"That would be me." His kisses moved to my throat, along my collarbone, and down to my breast. He licked my nipple, then drew it into his mouth like a chocolate covered cherry. "Sweet.....Luscious."

A. His hands caressed my belly, then stroked my thighs, until I began to writhe. He was dark, dominant, and dangerous, and I wanted Jayson Brant more than any man I'd ever known.

B. I shot up from the bed. "What was that? It sounded like broken glass. There's someone in the living room."

C. A police siren began to wail. We sat up and listened, as it came closer and closer. A heavy bagging on the door, was followed by a loud voice. "Police! Open up. This is the police!

D. My eyes flew open as a bright light was shone in my face and blinded me. I groaned inwardly. I'd fallen asleep in Jayson Brant's arms and this was the price I had to pay.

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day---Tomorrow's story continued by Julia Harper with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Virginia Henley. Vote to win your choice of Virginia's books!

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Valentine's CYOA Chapter 10

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Ten

“Of course!” they said in unison. Well, at least they agreed on something.

I looked from Brant to Branchos and back again. I did my best to ignore the fact that looking at one of them caused butterflies to take up mass migration in my stomach, while looking at the other made me feel like I was looking in the mirror.

One thing was clear. I had to take matters into my own hands. I had to find out the truth for myself.

I pretended to consider my options while snaking my hand closer and closer to Imelda’s lap, where the wallet that held her badge lay, forgotten, between her legs. When I was within an inch of it, I struck like a cobra. I grabbed the wallet and launched myself from my seat, sending Gypsy Rose Lee and Agent McStudMuffin sprawling to the pavement.

I took off at a dead run, headed for Mrs. Peterson’s. It was time for me to do a little impersonating of my own.

On my street, blessedly quiet though it was, I found that Mrs. Peterson still had some company. I could face her alone, but I wasn’t going to face the cops with whatever cockamamie story I managed to dream up. I sighed, standing in the winter darkness, a shadowy figure outside my own home. How had this happened? This went beyond, way beyond, a bad Valentine’s Day. This was a nightmare, or a stupid comedy. I guess it depended on how it ended.

All I knew, suddenly, was that I was tired. I longed for the quiet halls of the sleep clinic, the gentle beep-beep of the brainwave monitor, the endless supply of beds, which the man with many names had suggested we might share together. It had seemed like not so wild a dream…

I shook my head. I needed to reclaim my senses and dump all of these people, including the handsome one. I needed my life back, which was looking much more appealing than it had that very morning.

I snuck back into my own house, my lovely warm house, through the back door, after retrieving my spare key from the bird feeder. I left the lights off, slipped off my coat (had I actually let him take off my bra in WINTER?), found my way to the couch, and said, “Ah.”

Then I got a whiff of myself. A day of running, riding, jumping, screaming, and sweating had created a powerful aroma. I moved, still in the dark, to the bathroom, where I took a wonderful, steamy, fragrant shower, also in the dark—a remarkably sensual experience. I sang “Some Enchanted Evening,” but I started too high and ended up squeaking out the last notes. Then I donned a fluffy towel and felt immeasurably better. Things were going to be okay. I was going to do this.

A shadow materialized in front of me. “Don’t scream, it’s me.” Brant’s voice came from the darkness.

I didn’t scream, but I yipped. He leaned down to kiss me, but I turned my head and it landed on my cheek.

He inhaled deeply. “You smell amazing.”

“You don’t. Go away.” My eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the hallway, and I could see that he was smiling.

“You shouldn’t leave the key in the birdhouse,” he said. “Very obvious. I’m going to borrow your shower. Want to join me? I bet I can make you sing even higher.”

I blushed, remembering how very badly I had warbled. “No.” My face was still heated, but not from embarrassment. I wanted to join him, very much.

He pulled me to him and gave me a real kiss on the mouth, a deep, delicious kiss with just the right amount of tongue. He pushed my towel to the floor with impatient hands, then stroked his palms up and down my shower-soft body. “Stop it,” I said, biting his lower lip. “You think I’m easy, but I’m not.”

“I don’t think there’s anything easy about you, Cara. But I like a challenge.”

He leaned in for another kiss, but I bent down to retrieve my towel. “It’s bad enough that I’d flashed the boy. But God only knows who could show up here: the CIA, Imelda and her gang, the poodle people, or whoever the hell you tell me about next. This day has been like a circus in hell. And I’m sure as hell not going to be naked when the next performer takes the stage. I’m going to be dressed and focused on my goal: getting that stupid package out of Mrs. Peterson’s house, giving it to you, and bidding you a final farewell.”

He laughed and moved into the bathroom. He was incredibly efficient. In barely two minutes, he came out smelling great and wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. I would have bet all my money he was going commando under there, but that was not something for me to dwell upon. Raising my gaze from that dangerous territory, I looked at his head wound. Clean, it seemed barely more than a scratch.

I tore my eyes away from him and stared back out the window at Mrs. Peterson’s house. There was still a light on in her living room, although it seemed the cops might be leaving. Why had they stayed so long?

Brant was next to me then, too close, but his eyes were staring out the window, too. He had donned a turtleneck. Where had he gotten a change of clothes? Was he wearing mine? I wondered dimly. Now he was the one who smelled amazing. “Your plan’s not going to work,” he said.

“Why not? I have a spare key to her house. She gave it to me when she visited her sister in Cleveland. She told me to keep it in case she ever has a heart attack in there.”

“The key’s not the problem,” he said. “He is.” He pointed at a car sitting parked on the street, looking like all the other parked cars.

“He who?”

“That Lexus has a driver. See? He’s sitting there keeping watch, just like you are. They couldn’t get to the money with all the police around. But obviously the money is still there, because he’s still waiting.”

“And what about the girls? Stripper lady and mini-me? Are they going to show up, too?”

“I doubt it,” he said grimly. “They’re out of commission for a while.”

I stared at him, shocked yet relieved. “So here’s a new plan,” I said. “You distract him, and I’ll get the money.”

“That could work,” he said, touching my hair. “But I have a feeling you could distract him better.”

A) I’d rather distract you,” I said, inching toward him.

B) "Are you kidding me? Now you’re going to pimp me out just to get your precious Euros? No way,” I said.

C) “Fine,” I said. “I’m getting tired of the present company.” And I left him sitting there on the couch while I donned a black jacket and some quiet shoes.

D) “But we’re forgetting one crucial thing,” I said, sitting up straighter. “What about the poodle?”

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day---Tomorrow's story continued by Virginia Henley with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Julia Buckley. Vote to win a great prize!

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Valentine's CYOA, Chapter 9

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Nine

I skidded to a halt. The black SUV blocked the way. The side door opened and out stepped yet another crazy-looking stripper. Her smile was pure evil as she sauntered toward me. I glanced behind me. Dead end.

I braced myself as blondie grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip and hauled me toward the vehicle.

“Get in,” she ordered.

I peered inside… and saw myself.

“Good evening, Ms. Heart.” I patted the seat beside me. I mean, she patted the seat beside her. “Please, sit down. You must be exhausted.”

I shook my head. And this time, I mean I shook my head. (Hey, if you think you’re confused, imagine how I felt!) “Hell, no. I know who you are, Ms. Branchos, and I wouldn’t cross the street with you, let alone get in a black SUV with tinted windows with you.”

How stupid did I look?

She reached inside the jacket of her sleek, black power suit and I flinched, expecting her to withdraw a gun. Instead, she grinned and pulled out a small, black wallet, which she flipped open to reveal a very realistic-looking badge. Or, it looked realistic in the faint glow of the SUV’s dome light, at any rate. “Allow me to formally introduce myself, Ms. Heart. Imelda Branchos, Anti-Terror Division, FBI.”

I snorted. “And if I believe that, you have a lakefront property in the Sahara you’d like to sell me.” Blondie still had a death-grip on my upper arm, her bright red fingernails digging painfully into my flesh. I struggled to wrench my arm free, to no avail. “Special Agent Brant told me who you really are.”

She tilted back her head and laughed. “Special Agent Brant, eh? That Brixton, he’s full of them.”


“Cade Brixton, Jayson Brant, James Grimm, Roger Ramjet…that man has as many names as he has con jobs.”

Special Agent Brant of the killer schnozz, hot lips, and impressive skill with his…gun was a con artist? No, it wasn’t possible.

I swayed dizzily, and my fishnet-clad captor took the opportunity my weakness afforded her to shove me down onto the leather seat beside Ms. Branchos.

“I don’t believe it,” I said firmly. He’d saved my life more than once today. No way was I buying this imposter’s line.

The woman of a thousand faces arched my eyebrow at me, further disorienting me. “Did he show you a badge?”

I had to shake my head in the negative. But then, there’d hardly been time what with the bullets and the kissing and the nipple-flashing.

“How about an ID?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Anything to prove he’s who he claims to be?”

I frowned. Damn, she had a point.

She rested a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Ms. Heart, you’re not the first woman to be taken in by Mr. Brant’s smooth talk and pretty nose. That woman who came to your door was one of his former marks. So is Ms. Rose here.” She pointed to the scantily-clad musclewoman in stilettos who’d roughed me up.

I didn’t answer. I’d been this close to buying Mel’s story, but something about these strippers being in cahoots with an FBI agent didn’t add up. Then there was the question of why the Anti-Terror Division would be after an Italian con man? And finally, why was Ms. Agent-of-a-Thousand-Faces impersonating me of all people?

I squinted to study her more closely in the dim light. It really was a remarkable likeness. And if it was done with plaster, I’d eat my little white nurse’s hat.

“Let me guess,” Ms. Branchos—if that was really her name—continued. “Mr. Bardini told you that I’m a rogue agent and that two million euros were delivered to you this afternoon in a heart-shaped box by a pink delivery van. Am I right?”

My shoulders slumped a little.

“It’s all part of the con, Ms. Heart. If we hadn’t intervened with our sting operation, he would have convinced you to withdraw a large sum of money from your bank account to pay for the delivery of the second half of the payment, claiming you’d be saving the world from me. Then he’d convince you to marry him in a quickie ceremony, withdraw the remainder of your money, and leave. Ask Ms. Rose. She’ll tell you.”

Ms. Bump-and-Grind nodded in vigorous agreement.

I was on the verge of believing her. I didn’t want to, but it made a crazy kind of sense. Still… “Why is the Anti-Terror Division interested in this?”

“Because Mr. Brant funnels his ill-gotten gains to a terrorist group called PETOP.”

“PETOP? Never heard of it.”

“People for the Ethical Treatment of Poodles. They’re violently opposed to the grooming of poodles. Say it violates the dog’s dignity.”

Thinking of Mrs. Peterson’s beribboned toy poodle, I had a certain amount of sympathy for that position.

Hey, wait a minute…

“Are you telling me I was targeted because I live next door to a poodle?”

Agent Branchos nodded. “Exactly. Brant would have ‘napped the dog before he skipped town, thereby saving one more pooch from the ignominy of a bad haircut. Our plan was to intercept you before he arrived and put you in a safe house, while I impersonated you and spoiled his scheme. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan—”

Beside me, Ms. Tall, Blonde, and Barely Dressed eeped in alarm. I swung my head in her direction.

Jayson Brant, looking as yummy as ever, stood behind her, the barrel of his gun pressed to her temple. My stomach fluttered. With a nose like that, did it matter whether he was a special agent or a con artist with an unusual fondness for poodles?

“Hello, Mel,” he said casually, looking past me to…well…me. “Long time, no see.”

“Jayson,” she acknowledged stiffly.

“I’m here to cut a deal. Let Cara go, and I’ll let your trollop of a henchwoman go.”

“And the package?” Branchos asked.

“Cara doesn’t have it,” Brant said. “The delivery went astray. Leave her out of it.”


“Hey, wait a minute!” I wasn’t going to let them discuss me like I was some sort of package myself, to be bandied back and forth between them like a trophy. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

A) “No!” Brant and Branchos shouted in unison. Well, at least they agreed on something.

“Mel, I’m dead serious, here. If you don’t hand Cara over, I’ll blow this woman’s head off.” His gaze drifted back to me and his expression softened. “I won’t let you down, Cara mia.”

My insides softened like caramel at that look on his face, and I was ready to beg him to let me down—on a nice, soft bed—when Branchos laughed evilly behind me.

“Go right ahead. It’s no loss, she’s already dead anyway.”

Suddenly, it all made sense: zombie.

B) “Of course!” they said in unison. Well, at least they agreed on something.

I looked from Brant to Branchos and back again. I did my best to ignore the fact looking at one of them caused butterflies to take up mass migration in my stomach, while looking at the other made me feel like I was looking in the mirror.

One thing was clear. I had to take matters into my own hands. I had to find out the truth for myself.

I pretended to consider my options while snaking my hand closer and closer to Imelda’s lap, where the wallet that held her badge lay, forgotten, between her legs. When I was within an inch of it, I struck like a cobra. I grabbed the wallet and launched myself from my seat, sending Gypsy Rose Lee and Agent McStudMuffin sprawling to the pavement.

I took off at a dead run, headed for Mrs. Peterson’s. It was time for me to do a little impersonating of my own.

C) “Of course, Cara.” Branchos spoke in soothing tones behind me. “Why don’t you ask Mr. Brant to show you his badge and prove he’s who he says he is?”

Jayson’s eyes narrowed, their glint steely even in near-darkness. “That’s not fair, Mel. You know I can’t do that.”

Well, that was certainly suspicious.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because secret CIA operatives don’t have badges or ID. It would spoil the whole effect.”

Hmmm, he had a point. On the other hand, it didn’t prove anything, did it?

I looked from him to my doppelganger and back again. Go with my heart or my head? Okay, not exactly my heart. The place I was going with was a little lower.

Either way, I made my decision.

I turned to Ms. Branchos and gave her a syrupy smile. “If it’s all the same to you, Mel, I believe I’ll go with him.”

D) Before either of them could respond, a strange sniffling, scuffling noise issued from the backseat of the SUV. I turned to look over my headrest to find the source of the sound.

Mrs. Peterson’s toy poodle stared back at me with sad brown eyes. A gag was tied around its muzzle. What kind of monster gags a defenseless canine?

Okay, I admit, I’d thought about it more than once, but still. Wasn't that what muzzles were for?

I turned back to Branchos. “Lucy, I think you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day--Tomorrow's story continued by Julia Buckley with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Maven Jackie. Vote to win a great prize!

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Valentine's CYOA, Chapter 8

From now until Valentine's Day, the Manuscript Mavens are running a Choose Your Own Adventure® story, in which YOU vote on what happens next! Every morning brings a new author, from the Mavens to the just-sold, to the best-selling. And every night brings a new twist!

Get your Choose Your Own Adventure® votes in by 7:00pm EST (4:00pm PST) and you'll be eligible for random prize drawings, where you can win books by our Guest Mavens! Vote every day, and you'll even be eligible for the Grand Prize. (More info: here.)

For yesterday's installment, click here. To read the previous chapters in order, click here.

Chapter Eight

When our bike burst free from the woods, we were on the bridge heading back into town. His car was still smoldering on the river embankment below. Firemen and cops dotted the river. Brant ditched the ten-speed for a police-issue motorcycle and beckoned me to join him. “Are you sure stealing a cop vehicle is a good idea?” I asked doubtfully.

“Of course not,” he said with a sexy grin. “Get on.”

What choice did I have? Give myself up to cops on the off chance that they’d believe I wasn’t some international Latina double agent known by the US government as 1000 faces?

I’m not stupid.

So I hitched a leg over the back of the bike and settled on the seat behind him, sliding my arms beneath his jacket and wrapping them around his middle. Nice six-pack. And hmmm, he smelled good.

He gunned the engine. The vibration sent a tingle through my whole system. Talk about a thrill.

With a squeak, I tightened my hold as we zipped forward, the wind ripping through my hair. I’d like to think I looked like one of those models in some perfume ad: hair streaming neatly behind me, my face turned up and slightly toward the camera so they could see my sultry smile and kohl-black eyeliner.

But no. Not so.

My hair stuck to my teeth, my eyes didn’t have a stitch of make-up and there was no camera. At least I hoped there wasn’t. Wait, was I being Punk’d?

Naw. Nothing about Agent Brant gave me the impression he was in cahoots with Ashton Kutcher, or even an Ashton Kutcher-of-1000-faces wannabe. Besides, either those were real bullets flying around earlier or I’m not Cara Heart. Maybe I’m not. No, I am. I’m sure I am.

“Where are we going?” I yelled, trying to be heard over the roar of the engine.

“Your neighbor’s,” he yelled back.

At least I think that’s what he said, since the wind kinda garbled his voice. Poor Mrs. Peterson didn’t know what she had in her possession. I just hoped my evil twin didn’t figure out the package got sent to the wrong house. I was sort of fond of that little poodle when he wasn’t nipping at my ankles.

Brant maneuvered the motorcycle through town and back to my neighborhood. In tacit agreement, we ignored the jibber-jabber of police dispatchers crackling through the radio. Suddenly, my chest crushed against his back as the bike came to an abrupt halt. Untangling my fingers from their death grip around his ribs, I peeled my face off his leather coat and peered around his shoulder. We were about a block from Mrs. Peterson’s, I figured, and we weren’t going to get any closer tonight.

Oh, man. The place looked like a three ring circus. Lights flashing, police everywhere and poor Mrs. Peterson standing on her porch in her pink fluffy bunny slippers, looking very bemused by all the action while trying to hold on to her little poodle as it screeched like a half-crazed squeak toy.

I should go over to let her know I wasn’t kidnapped. Well, not really kidnapped. Just a little kidnapped. Really, more like every-woman’s-fantasy-napped. But then the police would take me in, and even spending Valentines Day alone would be better than making a virgin visit to the local jail. Or did probable con-women go straight to the pen?

At least until I figured out how to prove I’m me, I wasn’t taking any chances. That should give me at least another day with McMuscles…I mean come on. Fingerprints, DNA , the mole on my toe—my litany of excuses could only last so long before I had to accept all we’d ever share was the dusky memory of my boob and the hilarity of flashing a very fortunate teenager.

“Uh, oh.” My hunky escort muttered something a little less PC and gestured with his incredible nose toward to other end of the street.

Crud! A mammoth-sized black SUV rounded the corner and idled at the curb. It hunched like a bulldog in front of a food dish and I got the feeling it was waiting for things to clear. I wondered if the swirling red and blue lights made it as wary as they made me.

“Do you think it’s...” I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

“Yeah, I do.” He gunned the engine and turned us around.

I clung to him as we raced away from my neighborhood and back into the dark streets of the city. I sure hoped Mr. Secret Agent Man had a plan because the big, black monster had figured out who had its bone.

I don’t think of SUVs as speed demons, but maybe this one was supercharged because we couldn’t shake it. Down one street, up another. No matter how many twists and turns we took, the hunkering beast kept coming.

My heart pounded in my ears. They were going to have to cut my fingers out of the Brantmeister’s stomach. I buried my forehead in the hard depression between his shoulder blades and started praying for my GPS. Then I looked up in time to catch myself before another sudden stop almost threw me off the bike. Chain link fence. Hello!

Ugh! So much for my hunky spy having a plan.

He skidded us into a turn. The stench of burning rubber scorched my nose and hot bits of asphalt hit me in the cheek. Just as we righted at the alley’s entrance, the beast reappeared. Now all we needed was the theme song from Jaws to start blaring through the air.

“What’s next?” I asked. There was no way we were getting out of this alive.

“Get off on my right,” Brant said.

“Get off? Are you nuts?”

“Do you trust me?”

“Well, yeah,” I replied, “Sort of.” I mean, who didn’t trust the guy who kept you from being killed? Or who kissed like he did? Not a good time to be thinking about kissing, mind you, but hey, if I was going to die here, I wanted one last kiss. So I climbed off, hooked one arm around his neck and planted a big one against the side of his full-lipped mouth.

A roar filled the air. My hormones charging up? No, he’d hit the throttle.

“Nice,” he said, when I pulled away. But his gaze didn’t stray from the SUV and I wasn’t sure if he meant me or the fitting way we were about to die.

Obviously, next time I’d have to do a better job of getting his attention.

He slipped an arm around my waist and drew me against his side. “When I dump the bike,” he murmured into my ear, “we’re heading for that door.”

His most excellent plan ran a tickle down my back. I looked to the right and sure enough, there was a door. Now it just needed to be unlocked…

He gunned the engine, planted his feet on the ground and let the bike zoom out from under him. I only had a second to marvel at the bike’s upright blitz before Brant slammed into me and thrust me toward the door. Not bothering to check the lock, he kicked it open with his booted foot and hauled me into the yawning darkness beyond. The door banged closed, sealing us in.

And with any luck, sealing them out.

“Follow me.” He dumped me to the ground and grabbed my wrist.

Yeah, right. Follow him in the dark. But I guessed the alternatives at this point were prison or death, so I fisted my hand into the back of his leather jacket and tripped along after him.

We’d just found a set of stairs when a second bang ricocheted down the hallway. Stifling my urge to scream, I stumbled up the steps and left Miz. 1000 Faces to find her own way. My breath came in painful bursts as we chugged up to what must’ve been Heaven at the top of about fifty flights of stairs, and only when I was pretty sure I’d rather give in than keep going did we finally reach yet another door.

Darn it. Wasn’t there a bed somewhere?

There might not have been nookie imminent, but there was a little romance to be had. Wow, I’d never seen the view of the city from this vantage. But before I could really take it all in and savor the moment, Brant grabbed my hand and dragged me toward the edge.

Make that the tall ledge. Yawning gap between buildings. Flashes from Batman Begins made me sweat. There could only be one thing Mr. Secret Agent Man had in mind.

I turned to him. “You’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal, McMuscles.”

He didn’t even blink. “We’ve got to jump across.”

“Did you hear me?” I asked, though by the determined glint in his eyes and the firm set of his jaw, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d had a bullhorn. He was probably calculating the fastest way to get us into the next impossible situation.

“Watch me,” he said. He backed up several feet and then took off at a run. He used the ledge as some sort of inelastic spring board, and the next thing I knew he was sailing through the air, stretched out like Superman, flying over the huge space of nothingness to land in a tuck-and-roll on the next building’s roof.

Dumbfounded, I stared. Whoa! The man was an acrobat as well as spy. Who knew.

“Come on,” he urged. “You can do it.”

I shook my head, visions of me splattered on the street below enough to keep both my feet planted firmly on the roof. No way. I wasn’t a gymnast. Nor had I ever taken ballet. I couldn’t pull off a Shelly Long from the movie Outrageous Fortune, the one where she does some beautifully executed split jump from one Teton to another without breaking a sweat. Heck, I could barely jump rope.

“Just back up and run. You can make it. It’s not that far.”

“Forgive me if I find your opinion a little biased,” I hissed across the divide. “If I tried that, I’d wind up being Cara jelly on your stud muffin self.” If I was lucky enough to even get that far.

I took a step back, considering my options. And I kept backing up until I was all the way on the other side of the roof.

I’d need some good take-off prep.

Wait. What on God's green earth was I thinking?

The roof door banged opened. I dove for the shadows and shrank back.

I was toast.

I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed for help. Prayed not to die. Prayed maybe the next time I opened my eyes, we’d be back at my front door and Agent Brant would be trying to pass himself off as a stripper – if God granted me that wish, next time I’d be smart enough to just let him in and enjoy the show.

The loud report of gunfire sent me scrambling farther into the shadows. My stomach heaved. I was going to be sick. I leaned over the side of the building. My jaw dropped open. There was a God. And He liked me.

A fire escape.

I slipped over the ledge and clung to the edge by my fingertips. The drop was at least a story. A sprained ankle, a broken leg, death. Just bend your knees when you land, I told myself. I let go.

I landed on my butt with an oaf. Thank Frito Lays for extra padding.

I didn’t hesitate. I jumped up and shimmied down the metal ladder as fast as I could. Sparks flew over my head as a bullet connected with the ironwork.

I lowered my head and scootched down even faster. The drop to the ground from the last rung was nothing. I landed, knees bent and pushed off to run full steam ahead toward the alley entrance. As I rounded the corner of the building:

A) I ran into a hard wall of chest. Strong arms wrapped around me, pinning my arms to my sides. Preparing to use my head as a battering ram, I flung my head back and froze as my very own super agent’s face came into focus.
“Come on,” he said, “We’ve got to keep moving.”

B) I saw a man getting out of his car. Before he could close the door, I accosted him.
“Give me your keys,” I demanded as I elbowed him in the gut. The keys dropped to the ground. I snatched them and jumped in. I peeled out of there and headed to the only place I could think of: the sleep clinic.

C) I skidded to a halt. The black SUV blocked the way. The side door opened and out stepped yet another crazy-looking stripper. Her smile was pure evil as she sauntered toward me. I glanced behind me. Dead end.
I braced myself as blondie grabbed my arm in a vice like grip and hauled me toward the vehicle.
“Get in,” she ordered.
I peered inside… and saw myself.

D) I found myself in the middle of a parade, marching merrily down the darkened street. I gave myself a shake, but I wasn’t dreaming. Floats of various sizes and themes streamed past. A man dressed as a clown approached. His big red smile creeped me out.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked.
“We’re getting ready for tomorrow’s festival,” clown guy replied as he continued walking, his floppy yellow shoes slapping against the pavement.
A float with a Pooh Bear theme passed and I hopped aboard, scrunching down beside a cut out of Eeyore. The float passed by the alley where the big black SUV was parked at a slant. I held my breath, expecting be fired upon.
I released my breath with relief when we made it past. But then my heart leapt in to my throat as I saw Brant running toward me

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day---Tomorrow's story continued by Maven Jackie with the twist YOU choose!

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