Paladin (Graven Gods 1)
Struggling novelist Summer St. Clare can’t remember her murdered mother’s face, or most of her childhood before the age of twelve. The only constant in her life is Paladin, once her imaginary childhood friend, now the handsome detective of her urban fantasy series.
There’s nothing imaginary about Paladin now. Hot, seductive and dangerous, Paladin blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The passion Summer experiences in his arms makes her question what’s real — or whether she cares.
Someone else believes in Paladin, and he wants Summer dead. Her confusion mounts when she fights off five attackers with a display of dazzling martial arts skills she doesn’t remember acquiring. As she searches for answers and runs for her life, her dream lover becomes more real with every kiss.
I sat back from my keyboard and pushed a strand of peacock-tipped hair out of my eyes with a shaking hand. This had been a particularly bad one. Not that they were ever any fun.
When Paladin had touched Moss’s fetid brain, I’d seen the killer’s crimes just as he had. It hadn’t seemed like imagination or clever turns of phrase. I’d felt Moss’s sick excitement, the sense of power killing gave the revolting little fuck.
Gerald had been thoroughly powerless in the rest of his life. His jobs, when he’d had one, had always been for minimum wage, flipping burgers and delivering pizza.
Valak had given him magic and sent him out to kill.
He’d dragged the souls out of his victims’ eyes and gulped them down, collecting them for his master.
Paladin had made Gerald pay, shown him just how it felt to have the life burned from his body. It still wouldn’t bring any of the women back. Their children, their husbands, their parents and their friends would still grieve. The killer’s death would be a chilly consolation at best.
Still, Paladin had balanced the scales. And unlike the justice system, he never convicted an innocent through error or prejudice or a witness’s lies. He learned the killers’ crimes from their own corrupt brains or their victims’ ghosts.
Never mind the cost to Paladin himself. That didn’t matter to him.
I blinked back to myself, throwing off the story’s spell again. Then I caught a glimpse of one particular line, and a memory ambushed me with sick horror. I jumped up and raced to the bathroom in the back of my shop. Calliope followed, meowing in distress.
Falling to my knees before the porcelain god, I vomited up every last bite of Oreo and sip of coffee. When I was done, I braced shaking hands on the toilet seat, almost as battered from the memory of what I’d written as the violence of my heaving.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” Paladin asked roughly. “Every time you write it down, you live it all over again. And it was ugly enough the first time.”
“If I don’t write it down, it’ll stay in my skull and rot. I tried it the other way, remember? I almost ate Mary’s gun.”
He growled, sounding pissed. I wasn’t sure if he was mad at me or the situation, but either way, I was too busy yarking to care.
Calliope rubbed her way around my kneeling body, meowing plaintively.
“I’m all right,” I lied to the cat, and pushed to my feet. I almost fell, managed to catch myself against the wall, and reeled to the sink. Plucking my spare toothbrush out of the water glass beside the basin, I started scrubbing out the nasty.
Calliope jumped up on the minuscule vanity. “Rrrooow.” Which was probably Cateese for “You’re bugfuck crazy.”
“Thank you for that news flash, Captain Noshit.”
Compelled in the same masochistic way you probe an aching tooth, I returned to the desk where my phone lay. A glance at the grandfather clock told me it was three in the afternoon.
It had been 10:30 when I sat down.
I groaned. “Fuck, I hope nobody came in while I was lost in my own head. Assuming they didn’t steal me blind, they’d think I was the rudest shop keeper on the face of the planet.”
This was why I locked up anything more valuable than a dog-eared paperback. Otherwise a shoplifter could come in and clean me out, and I’d never know it was happening.
I picked the phone up and read a line at random. Murders, rapes and beatings battered his consciousness until he shuddered in revulsion.
The horror I’d — Paladin — had seen in the killer’s mind rushed back, black and awful. It’s not real, I told myself.
Myself wasn’t buying it. It had sure as hell felt real.
There’s something wrong with me. It’s not normal to feel this way about something I freakin’ made up.
I’d gone to writers’ conventions where other artists talked about their creative processes. Nobody else seemed to experience their fictional worlds as a splatter-punk flick. Yeah, they imagined the action in considerable detail, but not the way I did. They didn’t smell and taste the blood, or feel the anguish of innocent and hero.
Unfortunately, I knew no other way to work. If I wasn’t sane, there wasn’t a fucking thing I could do about it, short of turning myself in to the nearest shrink.
And I had no interest whatsoever in paying rent on a rubber room.
After feeding the cat, I spent the next couple of hours organizing stock and waiting on customers. One was Dave Stone, who came in to buy a pack of Magic the Gathering cards. He was looking for an Unwinding Clock to add to his collection. The teen usually bought a pack once or twice a month hoping to hit one that included whichever card he was currently looking for. There were thousands of Magic cards used as weapons in the game, and you never knew what you were going to get when you bought any given pack.
“One of these days, I’m going to collect an entire set of rare cards,” Dave said with a sigh, scratching Calliope under her chin as she purred in feline ecstasy. “Just as soon as I have a few thousand to spare.”
Collecting the really rare cards wasn’t cheap, though you could get a new pack for ten bucks. Dave worked at McDonald’s solely to fund his addiction to Magic and manga — Japanese comic books.
“I’m keeping an eye out for those foil cards you want,” I told him, then added impulsively, “Hey, what’s the deal with your mom? I swear to God, that woman acts like I terrify her.” I wouldn’t normally ask a question like that of a customer, but Dave and I had been friends since I’d opened the store.
“Probably has something to do with Paladin. Mom said just yesterday…” His eyes widened, and he got an odd look on his face, as if he’d just said something that would get him into trouble.
“Your mother reads my books?” I asked, surprised. I always figured she’d be more inclined to burn them, assuming you could actually burn an e-book.
“Uh… Yeah. I let her borrow my copies.” Hastily he added, “Hey, did I tell you I gave Paladin’s Favor five stars on Amazon? And not just because you’re my buddy, either. I enjoyed that book.”
“Really?” I asked, diverted. Authors are like new mothers — all you have to do to win our hearts is complement our babies.
“Really. Paladin’s seriously kickass.”
We spent the next ten minutes talking about the book. It was only after Dave left I wondered about his comment that his mother’s issues with me had something to do with Paladin. What the hell had he meant?
Huh. I’d have to harass him about that later. Speaking of Paladin… I picked up my phone again, planning to take a look at the copy I’d written.
“Meeeeoooooooow!” Calliope shoulder-checked my hand so hard, I dropped the cell, which clattered to the desktop and almost tumbled off before I caught it. The cat gave me a narrow-eyed glare as I put it back on the desk. Before I could look at the screen again, she planted a paw on my wrist in warning. Her claws were retracted, but judging by the look on her fuzzy face, she was ready to pop them like Wolverine.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was warning me off another foray into my book.
Deciding it was time for a mollifying feline bribe, I got a packet of cat treats out of the desk and fed her a couple. After a few more minutes scratching behind her ears while she purred like a Porche, I was no longer feeling masochistic enough for another PTSD flashback. When I picked up my phone again, it was to indulge in my favorite e-crack, Pinterest.
I found several shots of half-nekkid men to pin to my “Hero Inspiration” board, hunks who might make good characters if I ever got around to writing romances. Which exercise was actually just an excuse to ogle hot guys who made my girly bits tingle.
One advantage of being a novelist is you can use research as an excuse for just about anything.
By the time five o’clock rolled around, I still hadn’t edited any of the day’s pages. That was unusual for me. I’m one of those writers who has the most trouble with the first draft. Once that’s done, I can spend countless happy hours playing with sentences, cutting some, restructuring others, and creating pretty phrases to salt into my prose.
This time I was in no hurry to dive back into the psychic sewer of Paladin’s battle with Gerald.
Anyway, it was time to head for home and the Lois McMaster Bujold novel I was reading for the third time.
It was dark when I stepped out of the shop, purse flung over my shoulder, Calliope ghosting along at my heels like a fluffy shadow. “All things considered, it wasn’t that bad a day,” I told her as I led the way toward the Kia I’d left parked out in the middle of the lot, leaving nearer spots for the customers. Some of the older ladies find it painful to walk very far. “I got twenty pages written, and nobody cleaned out the shop while I was catatonic.”
Calliope opened her mouth to meow, then froze, her blue eyes going round in alarm. Hissing, she crouched, ears flattening as her tail bushed. I frowned down at her, which is why I didn’t immediately notice the shitstorm about to break on my hapless head.
“All right bitch, hand over the purse and maybe we won’t beat you to death.”
I jerked my head up, my heart diving for my sneakers as I realized I should’ve listened to Mary and bought a gun.
Make that an AK-47.
Five men ringed me in the darkness, eyes hard over nasty smiles, looking like the chorus line of America’s Most Wanted.
Oh fuck, oh fuckfuckfuckfuck!
Panicked, I looked around at them. Should I run? They were all tall, muscular, and fit enough to do some damage. Shit, they’ll be on me before I make it five feet.
“Valak, you bastard,” Paladin raged in the back of my skull. “I’m going to feed you your own forked dick for this.” I don’t know what the fuck my back brain thought he could do — or why he needed to do it to another figment of my imagination.
“I… I…” I stuttered.
A hiss of feline rage sounded. Calliope planted herself in front of me, every black hair standing out, her tail bushed and back arched. My imagination served up an image of somebody’s foot sending her flying like a soccer ball. Frantic, I pounced on her, scooped her up, and spun to run. “Help! Help me! I’m being robbed!”
I might as well have saved my breath.
“Oh no, you don’t, bitch!” A hard hand clamped onto my shoulder and spun me around. I dropped the cat as my captor drew back a fist, cruelty in his cold eyes.
“Summer, listen,” Paladin said, his mental voice urgent. “You’re going to have to fight, baby. I can’t help you. The spell won’t let me take over when you’re conscious.”
“What spell? What the fuck do I do?” My frenzied mind raced back and forth like a squirrel in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler. “I don’t know what to do!”
“Your body knows, Summer. Just let go. We’ve spent your whole life building muscle memory. It can save you if…”
“Give us what we want.” The thug’s vicious stare gleamed with nasty anticipation. “Maybe we won’t…”
I whipped around and kicked his feet out from under him, then slammed my fist into his mouth before he even hit the ground.
For a heartbeat, I stared down at the dazed and bleeding dickhead. “What the fuck just happened? Did I do that?”
“You sure did!” Paladin crowed. “That’s my girl! Told you it would work!”
“Bitch, the hell?” Dickhead snarled up at me through bloody teeth and started to roll to his feet.
Instinct drove me to stomp on his groin. He shrieked and curled around himself like a cooked shrimp.
“Cunt!” The second guy swung a fist decorated with prison tatts.
I pivoted aside, grabbed the back of Tattboy’s head, and slammed his face down into my lifted knee in the same move Paladin had used the night before. Blood flew.
I dropped him on the sidewalk. For such a big guy, he didn’t seem to weigh much.
“You don’t know your own strength. Don’t hold back. Let the bastards have it.”
Swearing, a muscular redhead charged. The world reeled as my spinning kick plowed into his gut. He gagged, doubling over. I nailed Red with an uppercut that laid him out on his back. It felt weird, as if I was watching the fight from a distance.
Three attackers lay bleeding on the ground now, barely conscious from blows I didn’t even know how to deliver. Yet my body kept right on kicking every ass that came in view.
Someone was screaming. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw a fourth man on the ground, howling, Calliope shredding his face with her claws.
“What the fuck? Cats don’t do that!”
“Calliope does!” Paladin cheered. “Get ’em, Cal!”
The fifth guy grabbed my arm, jerking me around and swinging at my face. My left arm shot up, blocking the punch as my right plowed into his jaw, which crunched like a piñata. “Eeeeewwww!” I stared down at him as he sprawled at my feet. “Oh, Jesus, did I just kill that guy?”
“Just a fractured jaw,” Paladin assured me.
“How would you know, Dr. Fictional?”
“Okay, whore, you’re going to pay for that.” Dickhead was up again. Something metallic flashed as he dove at me.
I pivoted, grabbed his knife hand, and swung him face first into the shop wall. Dickhead hit the bricks hard enough to bounce.
Behind me, I heard the creak of a car door opening. A voice snarled, “Oh no you don’t, you little whore.”
I whirled. Out in the parking lot, a man emerged from a black SUV, a rifle in his hands. From twenty feet away he raised the weapon and took aim with the cool skill of a marksman.
My blood turned to sleet in my veins. Dead. I’m so dead!
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I’ve been writing erotic romance since 1996, when my first novella appeared in Secrets Vol. 2. In June, 2004, Jane’s Warlord, my first novel, was published, followed by FOREVER KISS in July, 2004 the antho HOT BLOODED in September, and MASTER OF THE NIGHT in October. MASTER OF THE MOON, my next book, hit the USA Today list for three weeks, much to my amazement. Since then I’ve been writing like a lunatic and having a wonderful time.
I’ve been married to a wonderful man for more than twenty years now. He’s a senior investigator with our county sheriff’s office. As a result, I know an awful lot of cops, which is one reason I love putting police procedural elements in my fiction. I also spent ten years as a reporter, which gave me a collection of war stories you would not believe.
My husband Mike and I have one son, Anthony, who is in his twenties now.
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Angela-Knight/e/B001H6GF4Q/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
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