Rain lashed the Lair's windows (mullioned casements in the historical wing, sliding sashes in the contemporary area and the kitchen). Wind howled around the stone walls. In the kitchen, Sven sat with Paolo, the new cabana boy, to help him with his first night shift.
"I'd say it's a dark and stormy night," Sven muttered, "but they have a rule against that particular line."
"I don't get it," Paolo said. "If none of them live here, why do we have a night shift? Why do they care what we say?"
Sven sighed. "Because--"
"They're writers." Wearing the Roman-style tunic, leather cuirass or chestplate, and short sword of a gladiator on duty, Marcus strolled in from the gladiator villa, as he and his comrades called their barracks. They pretended not to know the cabana boys called it The Sty. Sty, hah! They should've seen the lion pit under the Colosseum. He yanked open the fridge and peered inside. "They keep weird hours. It's almost like a rule. Besides, that 'dark and stormy' thing has a history of some kind."
Sven frowned at him. "Pick something or shut the door."
"Yes, Mater." Marcus chose a beer and let the door swing shut. "It could be worse. At least the dragon's asleep. Zach finished the repairs in her cave earlier."
"Dirty beast," Paolo muttered. He'd never forgive her for singeing his trousers when he left after his job interview. He'd taken the position only because it came with very attractive hazard pay. And did not require dragon wrangling. Not officially, anyway.
Demetrius walked in from the dining area, his sandals slapping on the oak flooring. "All secure. Some of them are up in the library, supposedly working." Glancing at Marcus's beer, he added, "Any more of those?"
"In the fridge." Marcus pulled out a chair. Plopping into it, he kicked off his sandals. At least these modern ones came off easily, allowing barefoot traction on any of the Lair's varied floor coverings in case he needed to fight something. With the Lair connected to the real world by a tesseract and people writing paranormals and fantasies and other tales of mayhem, you never knew what might suddenly pop out of air to confront you. He shook his head. Why couldn't women pick one type of floor and just go with it? He stuck his feet on the table, ankles crossed. "So, guys--"
"That's a food prep surface," Paolo snapped.
Sven rolled his eyes. Marcus and Demetrius both glared.
"Uh, sir, I mean," Paolo added with a quick nod at Marcus. "I can certainly clean it later, sir."
As the two gladiators grinned, Sven sighed. "Don't indulge them."
Demetrius closed the fridge, popped his beer and sat next to Marcus. Eyeing the scowling Paolo, he kicked off his sandals and slowly raised his feet onto the table. "Not like Sven doesn't wash the table every time he turns around anyway."
"Yes, because people get it dirty." Sven cast a pointed glance at the gladiators' bare feet. "Disinfectant costs money, so take your feet down. Donna came in here after that last party, and she was not happy about all the repairs. You gladiators need to keep a closer eye on things. Especially that diabolical bird."
The gladiators exchanged an amused glance, and Demetrius shrugged. "You're in charge of entertainment. 'Course, it's hard to be in charge when you're laid out under the table, like at that last blowout."
"Which is the only kind of party they have," Marcus said. "There's another one tomorrow, you know. Anna Campbell's new book."
Sven scowled. "Great. Just great. More cleanup. As for last time, I couldn't help it. Someone hit me."
"Probably the bird," Marcus said. Maybe that would cut off the budding spat. Listening to Sven and Demetrius snipe could be amusing, but he wasn't in the mood for it tonight. "Who has him today, anyway?"
"Someone far from here, I hope," Paolo said as Zach, the head hockey hunk, wandered into the kitchen. "I can't imagine why those buddy people WANT him!"
Hiding grins, the others eyed him. His one encounter with the notorious Golden Rooster had ended with him wrapped in various crepe paper streamers and covered in punch. He still refused to explain.
"Not 'buddy people.' Bandita buddies," Zach said. "You'd better learn the lingo if you want to last around here."
"But there's so much of it." Shaking his head, Paolo sighed. "Demetrius, what do you mean they're 'supposedly working' up there?"
"It's too quiet." Demetrius frowned. "Usually there's that clatter from keyboards. Or whine from printers. Or 'hey, can you take a quick look at this' kind of stuff. Tonight, nothing."
Zach headed for the refrigerator. "Maybe they all left. Forgot to turn out the lights or something."
"They're kinda spacey sometimes, some of them," Demetrius said. "Distracted. It's a wonder nobody whaps 'em upside the head and robs 'em."
"Yes, well that's what you're here to prevent." Zach opened the fridge, chose an apple, and shut the door. His quick decision earned an approving nod from Sven. Zach sat next to Marcus, leaned back, and propped one ankle on the opposite blue jean-clad knee. "You'd better remember, some of 'em know how to throw a punch." With a crunch, he bit into the apple.
"A girl punch." Demetrius chuckled. "Ooh, I'm so scared."
"I've spotted for them in the gym," Marcus said. "They hit harder than you think. Know how to blow things up, too." Frowning, he took a sip of beer. "I think some of them actually have. Blown things up. Got that arsenal, too, and a few of them know which end of a gun to point."
"Don't forget the nurses and their knives," Sven said.
"Scalpels." Demetrius took his feet down. Shifting uneasily, he said, "Hey, you didn't see that Goddess Sangria around, did you? She--" A buzzer interrupted him, and he jumped.
As the others grinned, Paolo hurried to the box by the sink. Pressing "talk," he said, "Uh, yes, ma'am?"
The other men winced. "No ma'am-ing," Sven said softly, shaking his head.
"Hey. Who's this?" came crackling out of the speaker.
"Cassondra," Zach mouthed silently, making air air quotes with his fingers, "the 'vampire.'"
Paolo shot him a grateful look. "Uh, it's Paolo. In, uh, the kitchen, ma'--uh, Cassondra. The kitchen."
"I know that, thanks," she said. "Listen, we could use a snack up here, please. Just the usual stuff."
"Uh..." Paolo glanced at Sven, who made move it along motions with one hand. "Uh, right. The usual."
"For nine," she said. "Thanks."
Zach whistled. "Nine. More of them here than I thought."
"Which makes it ominously quiet, for that many of them in one place." Looking thoughtful, Marcus rubbed his chin.
"The 'usual,'" Sven said to Paolo, "means nachos, chips and dip, wine, tea--iced and hot--and soda. And maybe a pitcher of the smoothies. Jeanne especially likes them. And the leftover desserts from Beth's launch picnic."
Gaping, Paolo said, "How many did she say were up there?"
Sven ignored the question. "I'll help you put it together."
"I'll do the nachos," Zach said. "So we have enough."
The gladiators leaned back in their chairs. The more food went upstairs, the more they could wrangle for themselves.
"Snacks are on the way." Cassondra plopped back into the window seat overlooking the front gate. "It was that new guy. I think he's afraid of us." She scrunched up her face and wiped at a fingerprint on the stainless-finished Sig Sauer P226 on the cushion beside her. "Or maybe he's just afraid of ME."
"Can't imagine why." Grinning, Suz directed a pointed look at the weapon before going back to her book.
The crackling fire warmed the various seating nooks. It cast a golden glow over the Oriental and Aubusson carpets, walnut paneling and conference table. Heads bent over books, banditas lounged on the cozy room's overstuffed furniture. The warmth and light provided a pleasant counterpoint to the rain still beating the mullioned windows and the wind rattling the myriad tiny panes.
"It's really coming down," Cassondra said. She stretched to put her feet on the big hassock the banditas moved around when they needed extra seats.
"Uh-huh," someone answered absently, too fast for her to tell who'd spoken. Aside from the sounds made by the storm and the fire, only the occasional rustle of paper or ssss of a finger sliding down a turning page broke the silence inside the room.
On the couch by the hearth, Kirsten shifted positions with a soft shushing of jeans against the leather upholstery. Susan, who sat by the opposite arm, moved the pillow behind her back without looking away from the page.
Nancy sat up from leaning against the hassock, put a finger in her book to hold the place, and rolled her shoulders. "Oh, wow. It's three a.m. already!" She glanced over at Cassondra. "We should get some food up here."
"On its way," Cassondra said, accustomed to the obliviousness of reading banditas.
"Thanks." Nancy cocked her head. "I think I hear the dumb waiter cranking."
"And the clop of gladiator sandals on the stair carpets." Surfacing from her own book, Donna stood and stretched. "Somebody must be bored on security detail."
"Or hungry," Jeanne suggested from her chair by the window.
The conversation pulled the various banditas back to reality. Their heads lifted, and their eyes turned toward the doorway. Banditas did love their food.
At the table, Anna Sugden laid her book aside. "Well, no one's likely to break in tonight."
"Unless they're desperate," Christine put in, sliding off the divan opposite the window seat.
The agreeable rumble of male voices drifted into the room, and then Demetrius's baritone became distinguishable. "...give you cabana boys credit--"
"However reluctantly," Sven said in a dry voice.
"--you know how to put together a spread," Demetrius finished. Judging by the sound of his voice, the guys had reached the dumb waiter near the stairs.
"They do know how to feed us," Jeanne said. "They really do."
Nods of agreement answered her as Sven muttered, "It helps when certain people don't eat all the food before I have the chance to fix it."
"What's everybody reading?" Cassondra asked. "I'm starting my 'summer of re-reads' and I'm starting with The Courtesan's Daughter, first book in Claudia's Courtesan series. I'd never even heard of TICD (The Incomparable Claudia Dain) until Posh brought her into the lair for an interview. Claudia's a nice lady too. But now I'm hooked. And I blame Posh. Of course, I'd be up anyway, not like some of y'all."
"I like those books," Nancy said. "If someone had told me you could put Native Americans in Regency England, I'd have said, 'no way,' but Claudia makes the combination seem natural. Great characters, too, and a way cool marriage competition plot in that particular one. But I can't blame Posh. I picked them up on my own."
"I love the heroine in this book," Cassondra said, "because she's gutsy. And I love the non-traditional background of her and her family, and in particular how it's woven through this book in just the right places. It was a fresh approach to the "exotic courtesan."
Suz chuckled. "Well, if we’re blaming people for hooking us on books or authors, I blame Addison Fox for my addiction to The Black Dagger Brotherhood! Today I just got my copy of JR Ward’s newest book, Lover Mine. Sigh. I adore this series. Who knew? Me, the person who really doesn’t like vampire books, never watched Buffy, (yes, I know I’m an oddity), but from the moment I was handed my copy of Dark Lover, I was hooked. I devoured that book then needed more of the Brotherhood. What was a girl to do? The next in the series wasn’t due out for months!! Egads! I immediately went to JR’s website where she had interviews posted with the brothers. OMG, it only whetted my appetite for more."
"So if you didn't love Buffy--and I didn't watch it either, I confess--why these vampires?" Nancy asked as Paulo led a procession of tray-bearing men into the room.
Paulo glanced around the study. He hadn't been up there much. His scan took in the window seat and the weapon on it, and he blanched. Then he stepped sideways, away from the gun, with a nervous look at Cassondra.
She favored him with a sweet smile while Susan, Anna S., and Kirsten, noticing the byplay, grinned. The gladiators snickered and shook their heads. Sven merely sighed.
"I knew it wasn’t that these guys were vampires," Suz said. "I hardly noticed the parts where they needed to feed off others to exist. Nope, it was the guys themselves, their larger than life bodies, personalities and flaws. With each book I’ve gotten drawn further and further into their alternate world. As the series becomes more urban fantasy instead of straight romance, I find myself going there…and liking it!
Jeanne and Nancy shared a triumphant another-convert-for-the-subgenre look. "Welcome to the club," Jeanne said.
Zach and the gladiators helped the cabana boys set out food on the long table. The gladiators nicked a few nachos in the process, earning glares from Sven.
Zach placed a tray with his signature fully-loaded nachos next to Anna S. and glanced at the book she was reading, Liz Carlyle's The Devil You Know. His face brightened. “You’ve given up on those hockey romances. I’m glad you’ve realised none of those fictional guys are as good as the real thing.”
Without raising her eyes, she reached across and nabbed a fully loaded tortilla chip. “It’s Caren’s fault. She introduced me to Liz Carlyle’s books and I had to go and buy her entire back-list!”
“So that was the big box the Amazon Pigeon dropped off earlier.” He frowned. “I thought you weren’t doing that glomming thing again. You promised after Suz introduced you to Julie Garwood’s Saving Grace and Lorraine Heath’s In Bed with the Devil."
“And, after Mme. Wells got me hooked on CS Harris. This is the last time.” Anna subtly slid another box of books under her chair with her foot, then decided to distract Zach. She stretched, giving him a sultry smile. “I’ve got stiff shoulders. I don’t suppose you could give me one of your special massages?”
He grinned and flexed his fingers. “Sure.”
Casting an envious look at the massage in progress, Christine filled her plate. "As you all know by now, I blame Anna Campbell for many things--not least of which is getting me addicted to her roast chicken and potatoes and Brumby's raisin toast!--but the main addiction she's passed on to me is a love for C.S. Harris's St Cyr mysteries. Of course, any book Anna C. recommends is one I'm guaranteed to devour in a sitting (hmm, there we go with the food again!), but the St. Cyr series has me slavering for more each time I read one."
She held up the book she'd been reading. "My lovely agent recently sent me the beautiful hardcover of What Remains of Heaven, which only fed my addiction."
Several banditas exchanged knowing looks. "Books are dangerous that way," Kirsten said.
Nodding agreement, Christine fingered the stem of her wine glass. "This is one of the best mystery series I've read in a long time because it combines a complex, wounded hero/detective worthy of a romance novel with a rich sensibility of the Regency period in which it's set and a mystery that has more twists and turns than a Seven Dials alley. The romantic thread that runs through the books is an absolute delight and keeps me clamouring for more. I hope this series continues for a long time--I'm already suffering withdrawal symptoms while I wait for the next one!"
Donna settled in her chair again, her plate skillfully balanced on the arm. "I also read and loved What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris as a result of Fo’s recommendation. I wish I had bought the whole series at the time and not just the first book. Fabulous characters and sense of setting. There’s so many good books out there. I often start one with great intentions on finishing, but another book calls me away. I finished What Angels Fear – couldn’t put it down, which isn’t such a good idea when on deadline. So I’m not sure whether to thank Fo or curse her name." She finished with a big grin.
Paulo circulated with red velvet cake left over from the launch party. Although he tried to avoid the gladiators, Marcus intercepted him and took a piece for himself and one for Demetrius.
"Hey!" Paulo hissed. Marcus said something back in an undertone and fingered his sword hilt. Glaring at Marcus and muttering, Paulo straightened the napkins.
"I have someone to blame, too." Kirsten ignored the staff dispute and poured herself a glass of tea. "Okay, I still love her. Susan Sey, that is. She's my critique partner, after all, a dear friend and married to my husband's best friend. I'm basically stuck with her for life, so it won't do me a bit of good to run around mad. Still,here it is, 3AM and I CAN'T SLEEP because of this damn Susan Elizabeth Phillips book!" She picked it up so they could all read the title, Natural Born Charmer.
"Ah, the joys of converting someone," Suz said. "Good choice."
"Yes." Kirsten nodded emphatically. "I told her I strictly read historicals and she said I need to try SEP. 'You'll love her,' Susan said. 'She's the best.' Of course, Susan didn't mention SEP is totally addictive, that I'd find myself buying expensive hardbacks just because I couldn't wait a second longer when a new book comes out...and she definitely didn't mention this whole 3 AM thing!! WAH! It's all her fault!!"
Susan grinned at Kirsten across her wine glass. “I don’t want to point fingers or anything but what the heck, I will anyway. Kirsten is totally to blame for my Johanna Lindsey addiction. She was writing historicals at the time and said I ought to check out Johanna Lindsey’s Mallory family saga. She really admired Lindsey’s ability to create a world and a family the reader wanted to return to again and again. Okay, she was right. Because ever since I’ve been returning and returning and returning….”
She held up her book so they could all see it. "So here I am reading Love Only Once. At three in the morning. Again."
Familiar with the phenomenon, all the banditas sighed and nodded. "Shades of the TBR pile," someone muttered.
Jeanne rubbed her eyes. "Paolo, bring me one of those wonderful hangover cure smoothies you have. No," she answered his unspoken question. "I don't actually have a hangover, but when I read until the wee small hours of the morning it makes me FEEL hungover."
Paolo frowned and passed the smoothie in a big frosty glass.
"Thanks. Now, don't glare at me. It's Nancy's fault. I told her one of my students in the Body Disposal class I taught for From the Heart Romance Writers mentioned Kathy Reichs." She waved a book with bones on the cover. "They're the books that the TV program Bones is taken from. Nancy said she'd heard they were great. Between the student, and Nancy, I couldn't NOT go get them. I'd read the first one years ago, now I'm burning through all the others. Of course, she also hooked me on Laura Anne Gilman's Vineart Wars series, but the second book isn't out yet."
There were groans of sympathy at the wait between books. Paolo frowned again, though no one could tell whether that was because of the hour, the reading, or Jeanne's consumption of smoothies when she didn't have a hangover. Or all three. "Does anyone need a refill?"
Jeanne handed him the smoothie glass, empty. "Nope, just tea for now, iced, and sweet. Thanks. Maybe some of those little sandwiches?"
Christine motioned to the book with the bones, "Which one is that?"
"Fatal Voyage. Fabulous on the forensic pathology, and set in both North Carolina and Quebec. Superb on the crime solving bits, and deeply, mightly engrossing if you're into that sort of thing. And of course, I am." Jeanne grinned at Christine.
"Whose is this?" Cassondra held up a paperback. The cover showed a desert scene with Strong Enough to Die written across it.
Waving acknowledgment, Nancy swallowed the food in her mouth. She wiped away crumbs before explaining, "KJ put me onto Jon Land. I liked his Middle Eastern thrillers, so I thought I'd give this a try. It's also a thriller, but it's about a female Texas Ranger who's learning the case she thought she'd wrapped up years ago might not be so tightly closed after all. That's partly because the guy she put in prison didn't do it. He's out and wants revenge. But in a terrific twist, he turns out to be the hero. Not that he's an angel, having been an enforcer for the mob and done his share of evil things. He just didn't do the one thing she sent him to prison for."
"That's a couple with conflict," Donna said.
"Definitely. But it works." Nancy's eyes glazed for a moment, and then she said, "Gotta figure out how. Anyway, they just walked into a trap. So it's KJ's fault I'm here and reading at this hour because I have to see if they survive. And if they end up together, at least kinda sorta, seeing as how this is a thriller and not a romance."
"More fun if they do," Susan noted.
Silence fell while banditas and staff munched. Zach's fingers slowed as the words in Anna's book caught his attention. After a few minutes, Susan said, "You guys don't have to hang around if you don't want to. We can load the dumb waiter when we finish and send everything down."
Sven, who'd been covertly eyeing Kirsten's book, muttered something noncommittal. Zach was blatantly reading now and said nothing. Marcus picked up Nancy's book. "This has mayhem?"
"Serious boom." She nodded.
Behind him, Christine chuckled softly and shook her head. As he leafed through the pages, Cassondra winked at Nancy.
"I'm not done with that," Nancy said, "but I left a couple of others with major boom on the table by the door. Linnea Sinclair, Laura Anne Gilman, Catherine Mann, and Jessica Andersen. And if you want sword work, Gerri Russell's latest is in the library." With a glance at Cassondra, she added, "If you want real vampires, Barbara Monajem's book is there, too."
Sven and Paolo drifted to the table she'd indicated, where they peered at the books.
Demetrius sighed. "Rounds to make." He punched Marcus on the shoulder, and they stood. Assuming an Austrian accent, Demetrius announced, "We'll be back" as they departed.
"I didn't know he'd seen that movie." Kirsten exchanged a surprised glance with Suz.
Donna shrugged. "They wheedled a flat-screen TV for their barracks out of the last budget. I think they go for movies that're heavy on testosterone."
"That'd figure," Kirsten said.
"They like that Spartacus show," Sven noted. "Also that Rome series from HBO."
"Except they won't shut up about what the filmmakers have wrong." Paolo sighed.
Banditas opened their books again. Jeanne raised her glass to Cassondra in a silent toast before turning back to Kathy Reichs. Cassondra strolled to the window seat. Paolo eyed her nervously. Giving him a tiny smile, she tucked her weapon behind a cushion, out of sight, before she picked up her book again.
Paolo breathed a soft "whew." Sven gave him a nod of approval. Books in hand, they chose seats, and silence descended on the room once more.
This was a nod to people who've made our TBR piles grow, and we hope you've enjoyed it. Who made your TBR pile grow, and how? What was the last book you fell in love with but might not have read if it hadn't been recommended to you? What's the next book you plan to pull off the stack? And last, to keep up with the food theme, what do you like to snack on when you read?