The Unwilling by Kelly Braffet – Feature & Excerpt

Publisher: Mira

Publication Date: February 11, 2020

Genre: YA Fantasy

Buy Links: Oblong Books: Signed, personalized preorders! | Barnes & Noble | Amazon | Powell’s | Apple Books | IndieBound

I am so excited to feature and post an excerpt of this gorgeous book! I am drooling over this cover! It sounds absolutely magical and I can’t wait to read it!

“A penetrating tale of magic, faith and pride…

The Unwilling is the story of Judah, a foundling born with a special gift and raised inside Highfall castle along with Gavin, the son and heir to Lord Elban’s vast empire. Judah and Gavin share an unnatural bond that is both the key to her survival… and possibly her undoing.

As Gavin is groomed for his future role, Judah comes to realize that she has no real position within the kingdom, in fact, no hope at all of ever traveling beyond its castle walls. Elban – a lord as mighty as he is cruel – has his own plans for her, for all of them. She is a mere pawn to him, and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

But outside the walls, in the starving, desperate city, a magus, a healer with his own secret power unlike anything Highfall has seen in years, is newly arrived from the provinces. He, too, has plans for the empire, and at the heart of those plans lies Judah… The girl who started life with no name and no history will soon uncover more to her story than she ever imagined.

An epic tale of greed and ambition, cruelty and love, this deeply immersive novel is about bowing to traditions and burning them down.”

Prologue

On the third day of the convocation, two of the Slonimi scouts killed a calf, and the herbalist’s boy wept because he’d watched the calf being born and grown to love it. His
mother stroked his hair and promised he would forget by the time the feast came, the following night. He told her he would never forget. She said, “Just wait.”

He spent all of the next day playing with the children from the other caravan; three days before, they’d all been strangers, but Slonimi children were used to making friends quickly. The group the boy and his mother traveled with had come across the desert to the south, and they found the cool air of the rocky plain a relief from the heat. The others had come from the grassy plains farther west, and were used to milder weather. While the adults traded news and maps and equipment, the children ran wild. Only one boy, from the other caravan, didn’t run or play: a pale boy, with fine features, who followed by habit a few feet behind one of the older women from the other caravan. “Derie’s apprentice,” the other children told him, and shrugged, as if there was nothing more to say. The older woman was the other group’s best Worker, with dark hair going to grizzle and gimlet eyes. Every time she appeared the herbalist suddenly remembered an herb her son needed to help her prepare, or something in their wagon that needed cleaning. The boy was observant, and clever, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that his mother was trying to keep him away from the older woman: she, who had always demanded he face everything head-on, who had no patience for what she called squeamishness and megrims.

After a hard day of play over the rocks and dry, grayish grass, the boy was starving. A cold wind blew down over the rocky plain from the never-melting snow that topped the high peaks of the Barriers to the east; the bonfire was warm. The meat smelled good. The boy had not forgotten the calf but when his mother brought him meat and roasted potatoes and soft pan bread on a plate, he did not think of him. Gerta—the head driver of the boy’s caravan—had spent the last three days with the other head driver, poring over bloodline records to figure out who between their two groups might be well matched for breeding, and as soon as everybody had a plate of food in front of them they announced the results. The adults and older teenagers seemed to find this all fascinating. The herbalist’s boy was nine years old and he didn’t understand the fuss. He knew how it went: the matched pairs would travel together until a child was on the way, and then most likely never see each other again. Sometimes they liked each other, sometimes they didn’t. That, his mother had told him, was what brandy was for.

The Slonimi caravans kept to well-defined territories, and any time two caravans met there was feasting and trading and music and matching, but this was no ordinary meeting, and both sides knew it. After everyone had eaten their fill, a few bottles were passed. Someone had a set of pipes and someone else had a sitar, but after a song or two, nobody wanted any more music. Gerta—who was older than the other driver—stood up. She was tall and strong, with ropy, muscular limbs. “Well,” she said, “let’s see them.”

In the back, the herbalist slid an arm around her son. He squirmed under the attention but bore it.

From opposite sides of the fire, a young man and a young woman were produced. The young man, Tobin, had been traveling with Gerta’s people for years. He was smart but not unkind, but the herbalist’s son thought him aloof. With good reason, maybe; Tobin’s power was so strong that being near him made the hair on the back of the boy’s neck stand up. Unlike all the other Workers—who were always champing at the bit to get a chance to show off—Tobin was secretive about his skills. He shared a wagon with Tash, Gerta’s best Worker, even though the two men didn’t seem particularly friendly with each other. More than once the boy had glimpsed their lantern burning late into the night, long after the main fire was embers.

The young woman had come across the plains with the others. The boy had seen her a few times; she was small, round, and pleasant-enough looking. She didn’t strike the boy as particularly remarkable. But when she came forward, the other caravan’s best Worker—the woman named Derie—came with her. Tash stood up when Tobin did, and when they all stood in front of Gerta, the caravan driver looked from one of them to the other. “Tash and Derie,” she said, “you’re sure?”

“Already decided, and by smarter heads than yours,” the gimlet-eyed woman snapped.

Tash, who wasn’t much of a talker, merely said, “Sure.”

Gerta looked back at the couple. For couple they were; the boy could see the strings tied round each wrist, to show they’d already been matched. “Hard to believe,” she said. “But I know it’s true. I can feel it down my spine. Quite a legacy you two carry; five generations’ worth, ever since mad old Martin bound up the power in the world. Five generations of working and planning and plotting and hoping; that’s the legacy you two carry.” The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. “No pressure.”

A faint ripple of mirth ran through the listeners around the fire. “Nothing to joke about, Gerta,” Derie said, lofty and hard, and Gerta nodded.

“I know it. They just seem so damn young, that’s all.” The driver sighed and shook her head. “Well, it’s a momentous occasion. We’ve come here to see the two of you off, and we send with you the hopes of all the Slonimi, all the Workers of all of our lines, back to the great John Slonim himself, whose plan this was. His blood runs in both of you. It’s strong and good and when we put it up against what’s left of Martin’s, we’re bound to prevail, and the world will be free.”

“What’ll we do with ourselves then, Gert?” someone called out from the darkness, and this time the laughter was a full burst, loud and relieved.

Gerta smiled. “Teach the rest of humanity how to use the power, that’s what we’ll do. Except you, Fausto. You can clean up after the horses.”

More laughter. Gerta let it run out, and then turned to the girl.

“Maia,” she said, serious once more. “I know Derie’s been drilling this into you since you were knee-high, but once you’re carrying, the clock is ticking. Got to be inside, at the end.”

“I know,” Maia said.

Gerta scanned the crowd. “Caterina? Cat, where are you?”

Next to the boy, the herbalist cleared her throat. “Here, Gerta.”

Gerta found her, nodded, and turned back to Maia. “Our Cat’s the best healer the Slonimi have. Go see her before you set out. If you’ve caught already, she’ll know. If you haven’t, she’ll know how to help.”

“It’s only been three days,” Tobin said, sounding slighted.

“Nothing against you, Tobe,” Gerta said. “Nature does what it will. Sometimes it takes a while.”

“Not this time,” Maia said calmly.

A murmur ran through the crowd. Derie sat up bolt-straight, her lips pressed together. “You think so?” Gerta said, matching Maia’s tone—although nobody was calm, even the boy could feel the sudden excited tension around the bonfire.

“I know so,” Maia said, laying a hand on her stomach. “I can feel her.”

The tension exploded in a mighty cheer. Instantly, Tobin wiped the sulk off his face and replaced it with pride. The boy leaned into his mother and whispered, under the roar, “Isn’t it too soon to tell?”

“For most women, far too soon, by a good ten days. For Maia?” Caterina sounded as if she were talking to herself, as much as to her son. The boy felt her arm tighten around him. “If she says there’s a baby, there’s a baby.”

After that the adults got drunk. Maia and Tobin slipped away early. Caterina knew a scout from the other group, a man named Sadao, and watching the two of them dancing together, the boy decided to make himself scarce. Tash would have an empty bunk, now that Tobin was gone, and he never brought women home. He’d probably share. If not, there would be a bed somewhere. There always was.

In the morning, the boy found Caterina by the fire, only slightly bleary, and brewing a kettle of strong-smelling tea. Her best hangover cure, she told her son. He took out his notebook and asked what was in it. Ginger, she told him, and willowbark, and a few other things; he wrote them all down carefully. Labeled the page. Caterina’s Hangover Cure.

Then he looked up to find the old woman from the bonfire, Derie, listening with shrewd, narrow eyes. Behind her hovered her apprentice, the pale boy, who this morning had a bruised cheek. “Charles, go fetch my satchel,” she said to him, and he scurried away. To Caterina, Derie said, “Your boy’s conscientious.”

“He learns quickly,” Caterina said, and maybe she just hadn’t had enough hangover tea yet, but the boy thought she sounded wary.

“And fair skinned,” Derie said. “Who’s his father?”

“Jasper Arasgain.”

Derie nodded. “Travels with Afia’s caravan, doesn’t he? Solid man.”

Caterina shrugged. The boy had only met his father a few times. He knew Caterina found Jasper boring.

“Healer’s a good trade. Everywhere needs healers.” Derie paused. “A healer could find his way in anywhere, I’d say. And with that skin—”

The boy noticed Gerta nearby, listening. Her own skin was black as obsidian. “Say what you’re thinking, Derie,” the driver said.

“Highfall,” the old woman said, and immediately, Caterina said, “No.”

“It’d be a great honor for him, Cat,” Gerta said. The boy thought he detected a hint of reluctance in Gerta’s voice.

“Has he done his first Work yet?” Derie said.

Caterina’s lips pressed together. “Not yet.”

Charles, the bruised boy, reappeared with Derie’s satchel.

“We’ll soon change that,” the old woman said, taking the satchel without a word and rooting through until she found a small leather case. Inside was a small knife, silver-colored but without the sheen of real silver.

The boy noticed his own heartbeat, hard hollow thuds in his chest. He glanced at his mother. She looked unhappy, her brow furrowed. But she said nothing.

“Come here, boy,” Derie said.

He sneaked another look at his mother, who still said nothing, and went to stand next to the woman. “Give me your arm,” she said, and he did. She held his wrist with a hand that was both soft and hard at the same time. Her eyes were the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen.

“It’s polite to ask permission before you do this,” she told him. “Not always possible, but polite. I need to see what’s in you, so if you say no, I’ll probably still cut you, but—do I have your permission?”

Behind Derie, Gerta nodded. The bruised boy watched curiously.

“Yes,” the boy said.

“Good,” Derie said. She made a quick, confident cut in the ball of her thumb, made an identical cut in his small hand, quickly drew their two sigils on her skin in the blood, and pressed the cuts together.

The world unfolded. But unfolded was too neat a word, too tidy. This was like when he’d gone wading in the western sea and been knocked off his feet, snatched underwater, tossed in a maelstrom of sand and sun and green water and foam—but this time it wasn’t merely sand and sun and water and foam that swirled around him, it was everything. All of existence, all that had ever been, all that would ever be. His mother was there, bright and hot as the bonfire the night before—not her face or her voice but the Caterina of her, her very essence rendered into flame and warmth.

But most of what he felt was Derie. Derie, immense and powerful and fierce: Derie, reaching into him, unfolding him as surely as she’d unfolded the world. And this was neat and tidy, methodical, almost cold. She unpacked him like a trunk, explored him like a new village. She sought out his secret corners and dark places. When he felt her approval, he thrilled. When he felt her contempt, he trembled. And everywhere she went she left a trace of herself behind like a scent, like the chalk marks the Slonimi sometimes left for each other. Her sigil was hard-edged, multi-cornered. It was everywhere. There was no part of him where it wasn’t.

Then it was over, and he was kneeling by the campfire, throwing up. Caterina was next to him, making soothing noises as she wrapped a cloth around his hand. He leaned against her, weak and grateful.

“It’s all right, my love,” she whispered in his ear, and the nervousness was gone. Now she sounded proud, and sad, and as if she might be crying. “You did well.”

He closed his eyes and saw, on the inside of his eyelids, the woman’s hard, angular sigil, burning like a horse brand.

“Don’t coddle him,” Derie said, and her voice reached through him, back into the places inside him where she’d left her mark. Caterina’s arm dropped away. He forced himself to open his eyes and stand up. His entire body hurt. Derie was watching him, calculating but—yes—pleased. “Well, boy,” she said. “You’ll never be anyone’s best Worker, but you’re malleable, and you’ve got the right look. There’s enough power in you to be of use, once you’re taught to use it. You want to learn?”

“Yes,” he said, without hesitating.

“Good,” she said. “Then you’re my apprentice now, as much as your mother’s. You’ll still learn herbs from your mother, so we’ll join our wagon to your group. But don’t expect the kisses and cuddles from me you get from her. For me, you’ll work hard and you’ll learn hard and maybe someday you’ll be worthy of the knowledge I’ll pass on to you. Say, Yes, Derie.”

“Yes, Derie,” he said.

“You’ve got a lot to learn,” she said. “Go with Charles. He’ll show you where you sleep.”

He hesitated, looked at his mother, because it hadn’t occurred to him that he would be leaving her. Suddenly, swiftly, Derie kicked hard at his leg. He yelped and jumped out of the way. Behind her he saw Charles—he of the bruised face—wince, unsurprised but not unsympathetic.

“Don’t ever make me ask you anything twice,” she said.

“Yes, Derie,” he said, and ran.

Excerpted from The Unwilling by Kelly Braffet. Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Braffet. Published by MIRA Books.

Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving and Josie & Jack. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. A lifelong reader of speculative fiction, the idea for The Unwilling originally came to her in college; twenty years later, it’s her first fantasy novel. Visit her at kellybraffet.com.

Social Links:

Author website: https://www.kellybraffet.com/

Facebook: @kellybraffetfiction

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A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen – Feature, Excerpt and Author Q&A

Publisher: MIRA Books

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Genre: Sci-fi, Dystopia

Buy Links:

Harlequin| Amazon| Barnes & Noble| Books-a-Million| IndieBound| Apple Books| Kobo| Google Play

I am so excited to feature A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen today on my blog! Plus a few extras to go along with it! Check out an excerpt and a Q&A with the author below! Thank you to Harper Collins for having me on the tour!

An emotional story about what happens after the end of the world, A BEGINNING AT THE END is a tale of four survivors trying to rebuild their personal lives after a literal apocalypse. For commercial readers who enjoy a speculative twist, or their sci-fi with a heavy dose of family and feelings.

Six years after a global pandemic, it turns out that the End of the World was more like a big pause. Coming out of quarantine, 2 billion unsure survivors split between self-governing big cities, hippie communes, and wasteland gangs. When the father of a presumed-dead pop star announces a global search for his daughter, four lives collide: Krista, a cynical event planner; Moira, the ex-pop star in hiding; Rob, a widowed single father; and Sunny, his seven-year-old daughter. As their lives begin to intertwine, reports of a new outbreak send the fragile society into a panic. And when the government enacts new rules in response to the threat, long-buried secrets surface, causing Sunny to run away seeking the truth behind her mother’s death. Now, Krista, Rob, and Moira must finally confront the demons of their past in order to hit the road and reunite with Sunny — before a coastal lockdown puts the world on pause again.”

Q: Parent characters are a large part of A Beginning at the End. Did you know your character’s family backgrounds before you began? How do the characters take form in your writing process?

A: Somewhat. Usually the core problem comes first in my drafting process. I tend to write in layers and my initial drafts are always very light — initial scenes may only be about ¼ of their final length because I don’t know the characters too well yet. At that stage, I’m trying to find the main conflict of the scene and the voice for their characters. I typically need 5-7 passes through a book to turn it from a 45k-50k word skeleton to a reasonably polished 90-100k word draft. During that time, the characters start to form.

As an example, my current work in progress (which will be released after 2021’s upcoming WE COULD BE HEROES), I’m on my third pass through for the first act and only now am I beginning to understand each character’s unique voice as well as their physical appearances. Core conflicts (such as character X has trouble with character Y) are established during the initial outline phase as part of the initial concept, but the how and why those conflicts happen (Is it family history? Is it a traumatic event? Is it sibling rivalry?), that takes a little longer to establish. 

For the characters in A BEGINNING AT THE END, I started out immediately knowing what drove Krista and Rob. Moira didn’t really become fully three-dimensional until much later, and in fact in early revisions, she was just a minor supporting character. My agent noted that she was far too interesting to push to the side, so the book was rebuilt around her to hold equal footing to Rob and Krista.

Q: Where did you take inspiration for this pandemic? Do you have any other book or film recommendations?

A: Though it wasn’t a direct inspiration for this book, there’s a scene in the second season of The Walking Dead that began the train of thought for A BEGINNING AT THE END. It was the season on Hershel’s farm, and there’s a scene where Lori is trying to go over homework with her son Carl. A lot of viewers mocked the scene at the time with comments like “Why would you do math in the zombie apocalypse?” but I thought that was a smart bit of human grounding against a fantastical backdrop. Because those characters didn’t know if and when the apocalypse would end, and I think it makes sense that 1) a mom would try to keep some form of normalcy for her son 2) they wouldn’t just assume the world was completely over.

Because a lot of apocalyptic fiction focuses on either the event itself or a grimdark survival world, that scene sparked a lot of ideas for me — what if society did crawl back from the brink, and instead of a true “end of the world” it was more like a big pause button? Then all these people would move past day-to-day survival and suddenly have a lot of trauma to unpack, and i hadn’t really seen that covered much at the time. That seemed really interesting to me, much more so than the idea of tribal factions attacking each other to survive.

Q: Which main character is your favorite? And which was the hardest to write?

A: It’s been interesting seeing early reader feedback because the “favorite character” opinion has been pretty evenly split. I think that’s a good sign that things are pretty balanced. For me personally, I always viewed Krista as the main character in this book and it was originally written with her to be the main focus (the original draft of this from 2011ish only had her POV and Rob’s POV). She has such a snappy voice that it’s just fun to write her responses and reactions to stuff, and a big challenge came from cutting out unnecessary dialogue that made it in there simply because she was so fun to write.

The hardest character to write was definitely Sunny. Simply because I needed to get into the head of a seven-year-old. Her POV was one of the last major structural changes my agent recommended before we sold this to my publisher and it was tricky my daughter was still very young at that point (she’s still only five). I ran those chapters by my friends who had survived parenting those years for accuracy: complexity of thought, vocabulary, rhythm, etc.

Q: Your characters struggle with confronting their past while their future is so uncertain. What are some important lessons you’ve learned as a writer that you previously struggled with?

A: I think the keys to success as a writer are also keys to a happy and fulfilled life: don’t give up and keep an open mind. Every writer I know that started around my time eventually broke through and got an agent by improving their craft through feedback and simply chipping away. If one book wasn’t good enough, then it got shelved as a stepping stone and they marched forward. Doing that requires a certain amount of humility because it recognizes that you’ve got room to improve, and that improvement is going to come from listening to others rather than being defensive. Those are hard lessons to learn so I try to tell new writers that right away, so they understand the value of harsh-but-true constructive criticism from critique partners — you’ll never make it without that.

Q: What is a genre you don’t think you’d ever write? A Beginning at the End and Here and Now and Then are both SF, do you think you would ever write something that’s vastly different? What draws you to SF?

A: Writing character-driven stories in sci-fi settings comes pretty naturally to me, as it takes my favorite type of story (slice of life) and my favorite genre and brings them together. I’m fortunate that the market has turned around on that now to support books like mine. If I wrote something different, I imagine it would lean further in one direction or another — either a contemporary drama or space opera. I am also a big fan of gothic horror, and I would love to try a haunted house story at some point.

As for what draws me to sci-fi, I can’t put my finger on it but it’s been really important to me my entire life. I grew up on Star Wars and Robotech as cornerstones of my media influences. At the same time, I’ve never really been too into fantasy despite them often being opposite sides of the same coin. My wife loves both sci-fi and fantasy, and there are things she loves that I just can’t get into like The Elder Scrolls.

Q: What are some of your writing goals for the future?

A: Keep writing and not run out of ideas! In a perfect world, I’d love to be able to be a full-time author — which is basically 50% writing and 50% the business of being an author. I don’t think that’s feasible since I live in Silicon Valley and need health insurance for a family situation, so I will likely always have one foot in corporate life unless the political landscape changes regarding medical care.

An obvious dream would be to have one of my books be adapted to a movie or TV series — I’m of the mindset that HERE AND NOW AND THEM would work as a movie while A BEGINNING AT THE END has a deep enough world that it would work well as a TV series. I really want to try writing a video game, something like Telltale’s games. And I would love to write for my favorite franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. I’ve been pretty vocal about Clone Wars-era story ideas, and I’m friends with several authors on the Lucasfilm roster, so fingers crossed.

Q: If there was a global disaster in the future, what would your plan of action be?

A: Well, I have a bunch of animals and family health issues, so I’d say we’d be pretty screwed. I’m pretty organized and have a diplomatic approach, so hopefully that would earn me an in with some survivalists until society stabilizes.

Q: Both of your books, Here and Now and Then & A Beginning at the End, have a strong emotional foundation. Why did you choose that route?

A: It goes back to my favorite types of stories. To me, the emotional core is always the most important part of any story; it turns it from being surface level entertainment to something that resonates deeper.

Q: How has the success of your first novel affected your writing process for your second novel? Is there anything the first time around you did, that you didn’t do the second time?

A: I am lucky that A BEGINNING AT THE END was mostly finished when we sold it because it had been a project I’d shelved years ago but revised with my agent. I had a complete and fairly polished manuscript, and my editors revisions didn’t affect much of the structure, they were mostly about tightening and adding more flashbacks, more world-building. So in that regard, that process was very similar to HERE AND NOW AND THEN.

However, having now experienced deadlines and commitments on top of a day job and parenting, the biggest change is that I draft by acts rather than the whole thing. For books 3 (WE COULD BE HEROES) and 4 (in WIP stages), I drafted a first act to get a sense of characters and world, then sent that to a few critique partners for their input before investing further energy into it. There’s just no time. Also, I have to limit myself on reading for fun or video games because that time has to be used for writing and editing. Being published is a great privilege but its time demands do create numerous sacrifices.

Q: How do you balance being a reader and being a writer? 

A: I use my phone a lot! I’ve discovered audiobooks, though my preferred method right now is ebooks through Google Play. Their app has a text-to-speech feature which, while nowhere near the quality of real audiobooks, allow me to listen while I’m commuting or doing dishes or whatever, but then also allow me to switch back to reading in the app when I want to. It’s funny, I just don’t read physical books that much now because my time is so compartmentalized that having it available on my phone is the best way to go. 

The great irony about this is that as I’ve gotten to know more authors, agents, and editors, I’m often offered advance review copies by authors I really love and I simply have no time for them.

Q: What does literary success look like to you and with that definition in mind, are you successful? 

A: This is tricky because I think all authors at all stages are looking up at someone and mentally comparing sales and awards. I know I’m doing better than some of my peers and worse than others, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past year is that it is totally okay to be happy for someone while also jealous of their success. In fact, that is 100% normal.

With that in mind, I think success means that I’m selling enough copies to get the next contract and a chance to audition for licensed franchise work. Aspiring for bestseller status or awards is kind of silly because so many other factors go into that, many of which (marketing budgets, publicity selections) are simply out of your control. But if you keep producing at a high level of quality, I think you’ll be able to gradually grow your readership with each book, and that’s good enough for me.

Also, it’s really cool to hear your book has touched a reader. That level of engagement is always a good measure of success. 

Q: Finally, for you, what makes a book a good book?

A: I think the things that I always look for are interesting characters, emotional conflicts, and good prose. While I appreciate great action scenes or immense worldbuilding, I can often overlook those things if characters, emotions, and prose are all clicking. On the other hand, if I lose any of those main three, I’ll often have to drop a book, even if, say, the worldbuilding is amazing.

Shameless shoutout to some friends: if you want impeccable examples of ALL of those (characters, emotions, prose, action, and worldbuilding), I suggest Fonda Lee’s JADE CITY / JADE WAR and Kat Howard’s AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS.

Prologue

People were too scared for music tonight. Not that MoJo cared.

Her handlers had broken the news about the low attendance nearly an hour ago with some explanation about how the recent flu epidemic and subsequent rioting and looting kept people at home. They’d served the news with high-end vodka, the good shit imported from Russia, conveniently hidden in a water bottle which she carried from the greenroom to the stage.

“The show must go on,” her father proclaimed, like she was doing humanity a service by performing. She suspected his bravado actually stemmed from the fact that her sophomore album’s second single had stalled at number thirteen—a far cry from the lead single’s number-one debut or her four straight top-five hits off her first album. Either way, the audience, filled with beaming girls a few years younger than herself and their mothers, seemed to agree. Flu or no flu, some people still wanted their songs—or maybe they just wanted normalcy—so MoJo delivered, perfect note after perfect note, each in time to choreographed dance routines. She even gave her trademark smile.

The crowd screamed and sang along, waving their arms to the beat. Halfway through the second song, a peculiar vibe grabbed the audience. Usually, a handful of parents disappeared into their phones, especially as the flu scare had heightened over the past week. This time nearly every adult in the arena was looking at their phone. In the front row, MoJo saw lines of concern on each face.

Before the song even finished, some parents grabbed their children and left, pushing through the arena’s floor seats and funneling to the exit door.

MoJo pushed on, just like she’d always promised her dad. She practically heard his voice over the backup music blasting in her in-ear monitors. There is no sophomore slump. Smile! Between the second and third songs, she gave her customary “Thank you!” and fake talk about how great it was to be wherever they were. New York City, this time, at Madison Square Garden. A girl of nineteen embarking on a tour bigger, more ambitious than she could have ever dreamed and taking the pop world by storm, and yet, she knew nothing real about New York City. She’d never left her hotel room without chaperones and handlers. Not under her dad’s watch.

One long swig of vodka later, and a warmth rushed to her face, so much so that she wondered if it melted her face paint off. She looked off at the side stage, past the elaborate video set and cadre of backup dancers. But where was the gaffer? Why wasn’t anyone at the sound board? The fourth song had a violin section, yet the contracted violinist wasn’t in her spot.

Panic raced through MoJo’s veins, mental checklists of her marks, all trailed by echoes from her dad’s lectures about accountability. Her feet were planted exactly where they should be. Her poise, straight and high. Her last few notes, on key, and her words to the audience, cheerful. It couldn’t have been something she’d done, could it?

No. Not her fault this time. Someone else is facing Dad’s wrath tonight, she thought.

The next song’s opening electronic beats kicked in. Eyes closed, head tilted back, and arms up, her voice pushed out the song’s highest note, despite the fuzziness of the vodka making the vibrato a little harder to sustain. For a few seconds, nothing existed except the sound of her voice and the music behind it— no handlers, no tour, no audience, no record company, no father telling her the next way she’d earn the family fortune—and it almost made the whole thing worth it.

Her eyes opened, body coiled for the middle-eight’s dance routine, but the brightness of the house lights threw her off the beat. The drummer and keyboard player stopped, though the prerecorded backing track continued for a few more seconds before leaving an echo chamber.

No applause. No eyes looked MoJo’s way. Only random yelling and an undecipherable buzz saw of backstage clamor from her in-ear monitors. She stood, frozen, unable to tell if this was from laced vodka or if it was actually unfolding: people—adults and children, parents and daughters— scrambling to the exits, climbing over chairs and tripping on stairs, ushers pushing back at the masses before some turned and ran as well.

Someone grabbed her shoulder and jerked back hard. “We have to go,” said the voice behind her.

“What’s going on?” she asked, allowing the hands to push her toward the stage exit. Steven, her huge forty-something bodyguard, took her by the arm and helped her down the short staircase to the backstage area.

“The flu’s spread,” he said. “A government quarantine. There’s some sort of lockdown on travel. The busing starts tonight. First come, first serve. I think everyone’s trying to get home or get there. I can’t reach your father. Cell phones are jammed up.”

They worked their way through the concrete hallways and industrial lighting of the backstage area, people crossing in a mad scramble left and right. MoJo clutched onto her bottle of vodka, both hands to her chest as Steven ushered her onward. People collapsed in front of her, crying, tripping on their own anxieties, and Steven shoved her around them, apologizing all the way. Something draped over her shoulders, and it took her a moment to realize that he’d put a thick parka around her. She chuckled at the thought of her sparkly halter top and leather pants wrapped in a down parka that smelled like BO, but Steven kept pushing her forward, forward, forward until they hit a set of double doors.

The doors flew open, but rather than the arena’s quiet loading area from a few hours ago, MoJo saw a thick wall of people: all ages and all colors in a current of movement, pushing back and forth. “I’ve got your dad on the line,” Steven yelled over the din, “His car is that way. He wants to get to the airport now. Same thing’s happening back home.” His arm stretched out over her head. “That way! Go!”

They moved as a pair, Steven yelling “excuse me” over and over until the crowd became too dense to overcome. In front of her, a woman with wisps of gray woven into black hair trembled on her knees. Even with the racket around them, MoJo heard her cry. “This is the end. This is the end.”

The end.

People had been making cracks about the End of the World since the flu changed from online rumors to this big thing that everyone talked about all the time. But she’d always figured the “end” meant a giant pit opening, Satan ushering everyone down a staircase to Hell. Not stuck outside Madison Square Garden.

“Hey,” Steven yelled, arms spread out to clear a path through the traffic jam of bodies. “This way!”

MoJo looked at the sobbing woman in front of her, then at Steven. Somewhere further down the road, her father sat in a car and waited. She could feel his pull, an invisible tether that never let her get too far away.

“The end, the end,” the sobbing woman repeated, pausing MoJo in her tracks. But where to go? Every direction just pointed at more chaos, people scrambling with a panic that had overtaken everyone in the loading dock, possibly the neighborhood, possibly all New York City, possibly even the world. And it wasn’t just about a flu.

It was everything.

But… maybe that was good?

No more tours. No more studio sessions. No more threats about financial security, no more lawyer meetings, no more searches through her luggage. No more worrying about hitting every mark. In the studio. Onstage.

In life.

All of that was done.

The very thought caused MoJo to smirk.

If this was the end, then she was going out on her own terms.

“Steven!” she yelled. He turned and met her gaze.

She twisted the cap off the water-turned-vodka bottle, then took most of it down in one long gulp. She poured the remainder on her face paint, a star around her left eye, then wiped it off with her sleeve. The empty bottle flew through the air, probably hitting some poor bloke in the head.

“Tell my dad,” she said, trying extra hard to pronounce the words with the clear British diction she was raised with, “to go fuck himself.”

For an instant, she caught Steven’s widemouthed look, a mix of fear and confusion and disappointment on his face, as though her words crushed his worldview more than the madness around them. But MoJo wouldn’t let herself revel in her first, possibly only victory over her father; she ducked and turned quickly, parka pulled over her head, crushing the product-molded spikes in her hair.

Each step pushing forward, shoulders and arms bumping into her as her eyes locked onto the ground, one step at a time. Left, right, left, then right, all as fast as she could go, screams and car horns and smashing glass building in a wave of desperation around her.

Maybe it was the end. But even though her head was down, she walked with dignity for the first time in years, perhaps ever.Excerpted from A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen, Copyright © 2020 by Mike Chen. Published by MIRA Books. 

Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter

Christmas from the Heart by Sheila Roberts – Feature and Excerpt

Publisher: Mira books

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Genre: Romance, Holiday, Contemporary

Amazon

USA TODAY bestselling author Sheila Roberts takes readers to the charming, snowbound town of Pine River in this irresistible holiday romance.

Sometimes you need to look beyond the big picture to see what really matters

Olivia Berg’s charity, Christmas from the Heart, has helped generations of families in need in Pine River, Washington, but this year might be the end of the road. Hightower Enterprises, one of their biggest donors since way back when Olivia’s grandmother ran the charity, has been taken over by Ebenezer Scrooge the Second, aka CFO Guy Hightower, and he’s declared there will be no more money coming to Christmas from the Heart.

Guy is simply being practical. Hightower Enterprises needs to tighten its belt, and when you don’t have money to spare, you don’t have money to share. You’d think even the pushy Olivia Berg could understand that.

With charitable donations dwindling, Olivia’s Christmas budget depends on Hightower’s contribution. She’s focused her whole life on helping this small town, even putting her love life on hold to support her mission.

When Guy’s Maserati breaks down at the edge of the Cascade foothills, he’s relieved to be rescued by a pretty young woman who drives him to the nearby town of Pine River. Until he realizes his rescuer is none other than Olivia Berg. What’s a Scrooge to do? Plug his nose and eat fruitcake and hope she doesn’t learn his true identity before he can get out of town. What could go wrong?”

I am very excited to be featuring Christmas from the Heart and I get to share an excerpt! It already sounds so good. I love all of the warm and cozy Christmas movies, books, and music! I can’t wait to read this! I am loving the cover. I want to live there, or at least visit for a long time.

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 2-14-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Subject: Holiday Joy
Dear Ms. Thompson,
Happy Valentine’s Day to you! I’m following up our January newsletter with a special greeting as this is,
of course, the month for love. Love for our sweethearts, our family and friends, and for those in need.
As you could see from the newsletter, we put the money our loyal supporters donated to us to good
use. So many families benefited from your generous donation to Christmas from the Heart last year and
I just wanted to remind you that, even though the holidays seem far away they will be here before we
know it. I hope we can count on Hightower Enterprises again this year. We have such a history together.
Let’s keep up the good work!
Warmly,
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Date: 2-14-19
To: Ms. Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Subject: Holiday Joy
Dear Ms. Berg,
Thanks for reaching out. Our fiscal year is just ending and I haven’t yet received word as to how our
charitable donations will be dispersed this year. I will keep you apprised.
Best, Marla Thompson
CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 2-14-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Subject: Holiday Joy
Thank you so much. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 5-1-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Subject: Happy May Day!
Dear Ms. Thompson, just wanted to wish you a happy May Day. The flowers here in Pine River are now
in full bloom, and our organization has been busy helping people make their dreams bloom, as well. As
you know, while our focus is primarily the holidays, Christmas from the Heart tries to help people all
year round when needs arise. Of course, Christmas is our big thrust, and as there is no other
organization working in this area, we are much needed. As are your kind contributions. I still haven’t
heard and I do hope we can count on you.
Warmly,
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson
Subject: Just checking
Reaching out again in case my last email went astray. I’m wondering if you have any news for me
regarding Hightower’s involvement with our cause for this coming year.
Thanks!
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Olivia Berg
Subject: Just checking
Ms. Berg, sorry I haven’t been able to get back to you sooner. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. It
appears that the company is going to be scaling back on their charitable giving this year and funds have
already been budgeted for other causes. I’m aware of the fact that in the past we’ve donated to your
organization and I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you. I do wish you all the best in your search for
other funding.
Best,
Marla Thompson
CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson
Subject: Just checking
There must be some sort of misunderstanding! Hightower has always donated to Christmas from the
Heart. The company’s founder, Elias Hightower, was my great-grandmother’s first contributor, and he
promised her that Hightower would always be there for this organization. This is a company tradition!
Please speak to your director.
Hopefully,
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Olivia Berg
Subject: Just checking
I’m sorry. The decision is out of my hands.
Marla Thompson
CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Marla Thompson
Subject: Just checking
Then please tell me who I need to talk to. Who’s your CFO?
Olivia Berg
Christmas from the Heart
Giving from the heart makes all the difference

From: Marla Thompson, CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises
Date: 5-5-19
To: Ms. Olivia Berg
Subject: Just checking
Our CFO is Guy Hightower, and his email is ghightower@hightowerenterprises.com
Good luck!
Marla Thompson
CSR Director, Hightower Enterprises

From: Olivia Berg, Director, Christmas from the Heart
Date: 5-5-19
To: Guy Hightower, CFO, Hightower Enterprises
Subject: Please reconsider


Dear Mr. Hightower, I understand from your corporate social resources director that Hightower isn’t
planning on making any donation to Christmas from the Heart this year. There must be some mistake!
Surely you’re aware of the long-standing relationship between your company and our organization. I’m sure I can count on you for some small amount.
Best, Olivia Berg


Christmas from the Heart Giving from the heart makes all the difference
Guy Hightower frowned when he saw the email from Olivia Berg in his in-box. Marla Thompson had been forwarding her emails to him, keeping him abreast of Olivia Berg’s varied begging tactics, and had finally even come into his office, trying to dump the load of guilt the woman had laid on her from her shoulders to his.
“Don’t open it,” he told himself. He opened it anyway. Then he read it and swore.
Actually, he’d been swearing ever since meeting with his brothers to discuss the budget back in December. If either of them had listened to him three years ago, they wouldn’t be having to pull the company belt so tight now. This was the problem with being the youngest. It didn’t matter how many degrees you had, how smart you were or what your job title was. Big brothers never listened. Hard to listen when you were going through your third divorce.
That was Mike’s excuse. What was Bryan’s? Oh yeah. He was a wuss. He always agreed with Mike, no matter what. And Mike hadn’t wanted to change directions. Never mind that the company was struggling, keep on doing the same thing. The definition of insanity. Sorry, Little Miss Christmas. Times were tough all over. Hightower had kept its commitment to the more visible causes and turned the little fish loose. And that was how it worked in the corporate world.
He typed his reply.


Dear Ms. Berg, I regret that Hightower can’t help you this year. We’ve had to reassess our commitments to various causes. I’m sure you’ll understand.

Then he signed off with the time-honored adios: Respectfully, Guy Hightower. And if she didn’t understand, well, not his problem. He had his hands full trying to keep the family company afloat. Maybe now Mike would be ready to take his advice and diversify. Olivia Berg—Livi to her family and friends—read the email from Guy Hightower a second time. Yes, the message was the same. Really? Really? Who was this man, Ebenezer Scrooge the Second? She plowed her fingers through her hair, the birthstone ring Morris had given her for her birthday catching in the curls. She was so angry she barely noticed. With a snarl, she began to type. You should be ashamed. Your great-grandfather is probably turning in his grave right now. What’s the matter with you, anyway, you selfish bastard?

She pulled her fingers off the keyboard with a gasp. What was she thinking? Was this any way to get someone to contribute to her cause? And what kind of language was this? Her great-grandmother would be turning in her grave right now, along with Elias. Adelaide Brimwell had been a lady through and through. So had Livi’s grandmother, Olivia, as well as Livi’s mom.
The thought of her mother made her tear up. How she wished Mom was still around to advise her. They’d always planned that Livi would take over running the organization one day, but neither had dreamed that day would come so soon. Her mother’s heart attack had struck like lightning. Livi’s brother had left town, moving to Seattle, which was just far enough south to keep the memories at bay. Livi had stayed put, holding on to every single one, weaving them together into a lifeline to cling to as she kept Christmas from the Heart afloat.
Oh, Mom. What should I do?
Try again came the answer.
Yes, her mother never gave up. She’d chased one potential donor for two years before he finally came through. Livi still remembered the day her mom left the house, clad in a Mrs. Santa costume she’d created—requisite white wig along with a frilly white blouse and a red skirt topped with a red-striped apron. She’d taken with her a batch of home-baked cookies nestled in a red basket and returned home with a check for five hundred dollars. The man had been a loyal contributor ever since. Livi still took him cookies every year. “Persistence pays,” she told herself as she deleted what she’d typed. She started over. I’m asking you to reconsider. Your company is our major donor, and without you so many people will have little joy this Christmas. Any amount you can give will be greatly appreciated. There. He’d have to be a heartless monster not to respond to that. Guy trashed the guilt-inflicting email. What was he, Santa Claus? He had his hands full keeping his company solvent. But then, people like Olivia Berg never considered the fact that a company might have needs of its own. What made them feel so entitled to sit at the edge of the salt mine while a man slaved away and then greet him with their hands out when he emerged broken and bruised? Maybe some of those people always begging for money should get out there and actually earn a living. Let them work their tails off, putting in seventy-hour weeks. Sheesh.
Anyway, the company had already met their good deed quota for the year. The only cause Guy was interested in now was Hightower Enterprises. By the end of the workday, Guy Hightower still hadn’t responded to Livi’s last email. “You are a heartless monster,” she grumbled, glaring at her empty email in-box.
“No word yet?” her part-time assistant, Bettina Thomas, asked as she shut down her computer. Livi sighed and shook her head.
“That is so wrong,” Bettina said in disgust.
It sure was. “They’ve been our major donor ever since my great-grandmother founded Christmas from the Heart. Without their contribution how will we put on the Christmas dinner at the community center? How many families won’t have presents under the tree or Christmas stockings or a Christmas turkey?” There was no Salvation Army in Pine River, no Toys for Tots— none of the usual organizations serviced this area. There had been no need. Christmas from the Heart had it under control. Until now.

“We’ve had to reassess our commitments,” Livi quoted. The words left a bad taste in her mouth and she frowned. “It sounds like something your boyfriend says when he’s dumping you.”
“They are dumping us,” Bettina pointed out. “But don’t worry. We have time. We’ll find someone else to come through.”
“Not like Hightower. There must be something I can do,” Livi mused.
“There is. Go home and eat chocolate.”
And try not to think bad thoughts about Guy Hightower.
In all fairness, he probably didn’t grasp the situation. She’d call him the next day and invite him to come to Pine River for a visit so she could let him see the need, show him a little of what Christmas from the Heart did for the community. She could take him to lunch, introduce him to some of the people in town, put a face—or better yet, several—to Christmas from the Heart. She’d top it all off by following in her mother’s footsteps and baking him cookies. Then how could he help but catch the vision his great-
grandfather and her great-grandmother had shared?
Yes, that would do it. Sometimes you had to be a little patient, give people a second chance.

Excerpted from Christmas From the Heart by Sheila Roberts. Copyright © 2019 by Roberts Ink LLC. Published by MIRA Books.

Sheila Roberts lives on a lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her novels have been published in several languages. Her book, Angel Lane, was an Amazon Top Ten Romance pick for 2009. Her holiday perennial, On Strike for Christmas, was made into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network and her novel, The Nine Lives of Christmas, was made into a movie for Hallmark . You can visit Sheila on Twitter and Facebook or at her website (http://www.sheilasplace.com).

Social Links:

Author website

Facebook: @funwithsheila

Twitter: @_Sheila_Roberts

Instagram: @funwithsheila

Check out these other fun Christmas books that are on tour now from Harlequin!